Even when people declare they know nothing about mushrooms, there’s one they almost always ask about in the next breath: “Have you ever found any chanterelles?”
A charming name, an egg-yolk color, the fragrance of apricots (sometimes) and a flavor described as spicy or nutty conspire to make chanterelles among the most sought-after wild mushrooms. Foragers in the Pacific Northwest ship 5 million pounds a year to Germany alone.
Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) can be served sautéed, in a soup or casserole, or, most commonly, in omelets. (Even store-bought mushrooms should not be eaten raw.) Chanterelles can be dried, but they don’t rehydrate well. If you have a surplus, sauté them in butter or bacon fat for a few minutes, scoop them into a muffin tin (so they don’t freeze in a big clump) and briefly freeze them before tossing into plastic freezer bags.
Chanterelles—or “chants” as foragers call them—show up between May and September in the East, September to November in the Northwest, and in winter in California. They collaborate with tree roots, so you’ll find them on the forest floor. That also means they can’t be grown as a crop.
At full height, they are no bigger than a day-old chick (and are almost as cute!).
They are also the mushroom most likely to get novice foragers into trouble. Twenty years ago a friend of mine, relying only on a foraging book, was sure he had found a patch of chanterelles. A chef of his acquaintance was equally sure and offered to buy them. He declined, having committed himself to preparing them as part of a romantic dinner for his wife.
The mushrooms were delicious, the dinner was romantic and, in fact, it led to a bonding experience for them both: the shared misery of three hours spent hugging the toilet. They weren’t chanterelles, but Jack O’Lantern (Omphalotus olearius) mushrooms.
This story points up three things.
- One, books are helpful in your foraging education, but they are no replacement for spending time with an experienced forager.
- Two, while poisonous plants sometimes warn you off by tasting nasty, poisonous mushrooms can taste delicious.
- And three, it isn’t mushrooms themselves that are dangerous. They don’t jump in your mouth. It’s careless foragers who are dangerous.
So how do you tell the difference between chants and the vaguley similar Jack O’Lanterns? It’s actually easy, and you only need to know two things to keep them straight.
First, slice the mushroom open. Chants will be white on the inside. Jacks will be as orange inside as out.
Second, there’s a difference in the gills. A Jack’s gills will all be perfectly parallel and deep, but the gills of a chant (they are really “false gills” but no need to go into that now) will be shallow and have several forks and crossings.
So if the gills cross and the inside is white, you can indeed cook them, enjoying a romantic dinner with your partner.
What if there was a tool for harvesting chanterelles and other mushrooms without bending over? And what if that tool also had other uses: a walking stick, snagging mushrooms up on a tree, ripping through spider webs in the woods instead of using your face, raking back leaves that cover short mushrooms, and avoiding being face-to-face with the occasional snake?
Woody Collins has invented a DIY mushroom picker that solves all those problems. He is what the young folks might call a “maker.”
Before he became a mushroom hunter in the Lowcountry of Beaufort County, South Carolina, he spent 30 years on shrimp boats as mate and captain. As those who work in farming and fishing know, sometimes the budget isn’t there to buy some dandy tool so you have to make one yourself. And sometimes those tools are concocted with stunning creativity, especially when you’re several miles at sea.
Retired from shrimping, Collins now gathers many pounds of chanterelles that he finds in the Lowcountry’s Gothic forests of live oaks draped with Spanish moss. He’s still plenty spry, but when he wanted a quicker way to get those mushrooms into his basket, he put his maker skills to work. That’s how he invented this DIY mushroom picker.
Here’s what you need to make a DIY mushroom picker of your own.
- a 4- to 5-foot length of round fiberglass rod about 1⁄4- to 1⁄2-inch thick. Some hardware stores sell them as posts for an electric fence.
- 15-inch length of No. 9 tie wire (also found in hardware stores). When it’s long, it’s limber; when it’s short it’s stiff.
- a roll of duct tape
- optional: bright-colored tape or paint for the handle, so you don’t lose it in the woods.
- tape measure
- speed square or some other way to determine angles
- hand saw to cut fiberglass to length, if needed
- bolt cutters to cut wire to length
- vice grips (or as we professionals call them, “the wrong tool for every job”) to bend wire into shape. Pliers will work, too.
- hammer, to modify angle of the bent wire
- hard surface—stone, masonry or metal—for supporting the wire as you lightly hammer it
- Wipe the light coating of oil off the wire with some paper towels, and cut it to length. (Cut the fiberglass rod, too, if need be.)
- Three inches from the end of the wire, use the vice grips to bend it double.
- The apex of the bend will be U-shaped. Rest it on a hard surface. Tap it with the hammer to get the bend into a V-shape.
- Then with the vice grips, ease the wire back out to a 30-degree angle. That’s your picker. If held parallel to the ground, it’s at the correct angle for snagging a soil-borne mushroom and holding the stem securely.
- About 5 inches from the apex of the V, bend the wire to a 40-degree angle. Make it perpendicular to the V, so the V will be parallel to the ground for picking. You may need to adjust this angle a bit to account for your height as you use it.
- Tear off one 3-inch strip of duct tape to secure the straight end of the wire to the fiberglass rod.
- Continue wrapping 3-inch lengths of tape around the wire and rod until you cover the entire wire. Make sure the tape is snug as you go.
- Test-drive the mushroom picker with any soil-borne mushrooms with a firm stem: chanterelles, morels, milkies, blewits, boletes, etc. You may need to adjust the 40-degree angle a bit to get the V parallel to the ground. And for your first model, you may need to adjust the V itself until it holds a mushroom well.
- Pick mushrooms from the ground. Cut or brush off any dirt. Drop in basket or paper bag.
- Jump in the air, and kick your heels in joy over your quicker pace and not having to bend over to gather mushrooms.
Granted, not everyone has the skills or the interest in making even a low-tech tool like this DIY mushroom picker. It may be a good opportunity for the handiest members of a mushroom club to make and sell them as a fundraiser for the club. Or a self-employed mushroom hunter may want to offer them for sale to the public as I do at my foraging classes.
And, of course, in my mind, I’ll thank Capt. Woody every time I use my own DIY mushroom picker!
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.