Chanterelles popping up everywhere

Something small, orange and cheerful looking caught my eye as my daughter and I were cutting through the shady, mossy part of our front yard. I bent down and plucked a mushroom that sprouted up during one of the torrential rainstorms that have been a key feature of this strange but not wholly unpleasant Summer of ‘13.

“I think it’s a chanterelle,” I said. I’ve been hearing stories of people all over Atlanta finding these mushrooms. Chef Chris Hall of Local Three restaurant in Buckhead had recently mentioned to me that he had harvested 25 pounds just outside the restaurant’s doors on West Paces Ferry Road.

“We should eat it,” crowed my kid, excited about the prospect of front-yard foraging.

I did what any city boy who grew up in a family of doctors with a protective Jewish mother would do. I freaked. I threw the mushroom to the ground and lectured her about never, ever (ever, ever) harvest a wild mushroom unless in the company of a certified plant biologist and a liver surgeon.

I did, however, post a mention of my find on Facebook. On this fertile field of cat fanciers and back-yard barbecue enthusiasts, the amateur mycologists began popping up.

“Post pictures!” they all told me. Cap, side, stem.

Once I returned home, I found my discarded mushroom, and as soon as I kneeled to the ground, I noticed another dozen nearby. That happy orange color. Those fluted edges.

I went on a few foraging blogs and sites and discovered many pictures and descriptions of both chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) and lookalike false chanterelles (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca). The former are delicious, the latter might give you a stomachache but not put you in liver failure. More importantly, the real chanterelle has "false gills" or soft ridges on the underside, while the false chanterelle has "true gills" like you would see on the underside of a portobello mushroom.

But there was also a third mushroom mentioned in all the literature, which sounded scary. The jack-o'-lantern (Omphalotus olearius) looks similar, though it also has true gills. This mushroom grows on decaying tree stumps rather than out of the ground, and it can glow in the dark because of an enzyme called "luciferase." Please don't let me feed my family luciferase, I silently prayed.

All but one of my Facebook friends thought I had a true chanterelle, based on the pictures I posted. One thought it looked like a false chanterelle but not a jack o’ lantern. I looked at the mushrooms again and they clearly had false gills, if not the distinctive apricot odor that some suggested I would smell. I cleaned them, put them in a bag in the refrigerator and left stern instructions not to touch them.

Since these mushrooms seemed to be popping up everywhere around Atlanta, so did discussion. A colleague at work mentioned in an offhand way the next day that that the woods behind our office appeared to be full of orange mushrooms, though he wasn’t 100 percent sure if they were chanterelles. Did I know what chanterelles looked like? I took off for the woods like a rabbit.

It didn’t take long to find them on a sun-dappled hillside, under a bough of trees misting water. Unlike the half-sunbaked mushrooms in my yard, these were soft and beautiful. I picked one, held it to my nose and inhaled the sweetest smell of apricot. These were the same as the mushroom in my yard, just bigger and better.

So I filled a grocery bag and scampered out of the woods just as the rain intensified from a few drops to a steady drizzle to a warm shower. I climbed into my car to wait out the torrent.

That night I made fresh pasta with farm eggs, which we rolled out, cut and draped over every rolling pin in the house to dry.

Following the advice of chef Todd Mussman of Muss & Turners (an eager mushroom and ramp forager), I seasoned the mushrooms and roasted them in a hot oven until they gave up their volume and color, then used them in the pasta sauce. The flavor had deepened and the slips of mushroom had taken on a meaty texture. We made a mustardy salad with vegetables from our garden and the farmers market, and opened up a nice bottle of feminine, fruity pinot noir.

It was the perfect rainy-night summer dinner, and so far no one has gotten a stomachache.

Do you think you have chanterelles growing in your yard? Don't eat them until you know how to recognize them. A good place to start is the website maintained by the Mushroom Club of Georgia at www.gamushroomclub.org.