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Wild Harvest

11 March 2004


If you ask a mushroom hunter where to find the best Chanterelles in Santa Barbara County, you might. as well buy some heavy-duty walking shoes and a pair of clippers, and pick up some calamine lotion while you're at it.

Because finding the trumpet-shaped wild mushrooms can be a tricky- it not itchy- experience. You have to know where to look such as underneath mounds of oak tree leaves and near patches of poison oak where they breed.

Chanterelles, known in France as girolle, are considered a delicacy among mushroom aficionados. Find a patch of the sweet, nutty mushrooms, and you will have bragging rights and a tasty meal.

Because they cannot be cultivated chanterelles don't come cheaply. They usually run about $20 per pound whole in specialty markets, including Lazy Acres Market which sells them for $24.99 per pound. Tutti Fruitti Farms in Carpinteria sells them at the local farmers markets for $16 per pound.

In the forest, chanterelles don't cost a penny.

"There's something about going out to hunt and foraging for something and taking it back home and eating it," said A.T. Skiles, 33, of Santa Barbara, who already has hunted three times this year. "It's cool. You've gone and used your senses and your brains to find food as opposed-to going to grocery store to buy some cardboard meal that has lots of chemicals in it.

"It's like' running around' playing Pac Man out in the forest," he added. "You go and look for these power pellets. It's very addicting."

Another addict, J.J. Hollister of Santa Barbara, couldn't agree more. He collected more than a pound of the bright orange fungi on a recent morning along with his wife Barbara and his dog Higgie.

"They are just wonderful to eat, but they are fun to try to find," he said of the mushrooms. "It's just all apart of the game," said Mr. Hollister, 72. "You can get along fine without them for a few months, but once you see one, you have to have one."

That obsession may explain why hunters risk getting poison oak for their coveted trophies. Though Mr. Hollister insisted he's pretty much immune to poison oak since he grew up on a ranch in Santa Barbara, he expects others, to take precaution.
"You put on long sleeves and jeans and you get yourself a nice stick from the forest," Mr. Hollister explained. "When you get to the area you expect they might be, you uncover the leaves with your stick, and if you're lucky enough, you'll find a chanterelle."

And where would that be?

Chanterelles like the moisture of the north slope and the shade of oak trees, Mr. Hollister said. They only come up in the winter, particularly after rainstorms.

Once you've located the mushrooms, which, according to Mr. Skiles, range in size from "not much bigger than your thumb and to larger than your fist," the best way to cut them is just above the soil's surface so more mushrooms can generate.

Feel free to cut and, chop to your heart's content back at home.

The chewy mushrooms have a meaty, peppery taste when sautéd, Mr. Hollister said.

"I clean them and hand them over to my wife," he said with a chuckle. "She sautés them and puts certain types of taste-enhancing spices on them and cooks them with olive oil."

"You can put them on buttered bread, put them into gravies to enhance your meat selection, or put them with snow peas into a wok," he said.

e-mail: mheanelly@newspress.com