Hunting for mushrooms is a curious thing indeed, few other, in fact no other member of the wild larder evokes such secrecy, joy and obsessive weather watching. I believe its probably the only outdoor pursuit in which participants pray for a downpour to get the fruiting bodies to magically appear. It cannot be denied there is a sort of magic behind them, a favorite of gnomes with fishing rods, fairies and any other woodland dweller: including humans.
Every ‘shroomer has their closely guarded spots that they won’t even share with their nearest and dearest and no amount of alcohol will shift from their lips (trust me…I’ve tried). I did once get my friend Dan to determine the location of his private giant puffball stock, but when I got there, nothing…how typical. But then these are the things that make mushroom hunting what it is! If you have a favored spot I don’t need to describe to you the anguish, hatred and disgust that bubbles up on encountering another soul on your patch, but lets be honest, its probably not ‘yours’ anyway.
What a bumper crop there has been this season! Since august I have been filling my boots and my plate weekly with all sorts of mushroomy goodness. I have also found that it pays to go far off the beaten track in order to secure some great finds, lets face it there are a few among us that won’t venture too far from the car!
Another method that I have found pays well, is by approaching some inbred lord of the manor who couldn’t tell his arse from his elbow and offering him half the finds in return for the pleasure of roaming his ridiculously huge estate. Something few will have the opportunity to do without fear of being peppered in the backside from a shotgun-wielding stupid lord bucktooth-one eye. It’s quite likely this hapless Barbour brigade Chin, desperate to get a little earthy will happily, nay exalt at the fact that he has a ‘mushroom chap’, and give you free reign. Its more than likely the last encounter he had with mushrooms was on his “Gap Yah” somewhere in Thailand. Just remember to come back with one or two and hide the rest in the hedge…wahaha! A bit of the Robin Hood Tree-dweller within rising to the surface there- apologies. Seriously…no really…I mean it. Truly.
So it was on one such jaunt on a mighty Sussex estate, that I took my friend Charlie (My Bass fisherman- check out this post) on his first mushroom forage. Having heard of all my success over the summer and even tasting some of the wonderful Ceps I was procuring, I guess he just wanted a piece of the action as well as to see what my gathering instincts were actually like (believe it or not but he is the first friend I have ever taken foraging! For mushrooms at least). I wasn’t too bothered about showing him my stomping grounds- he knows I have a shotgun, machete, a couple of axes and am probably one to be reckoned with if he ever revealed their location. So all was well.
Cep season, sadly was over, a few boletus here and there but none worth bothering about, plenty of hedgehogs, in fact that was all we seemed to find- no bad thing, they are one of the best and a personal favorite, but nothing to get really excited about. Despite the amount of pine trees there wasn’t a cauliflower between them (although I did find one two days later in the one cluster we didn’t search!). It was upon approaching a pine with a few fallen limbs around it and a bit of bilberry scrub around its base that I found myself staring down the eye of a winter chanterelle…my very first.
I was sure of it, having flicked through my mushroom books enough times. Charlie, it was safe to say, had no idea what had made me so excited. At first I thought it was a horn of plenty, but went in for a closer inspection, sure enough the yellow stalk and the tell tale veiny wrinkles instead of gills were a sure thing, after consulting 4 books I was convinced, and it felt like I had just discovered Atlantis. This is without a doubt the magic behind the mushrooms.
The most pleasing bit of information throughout all my reference books was: “Common and often in large numbers”. Excellent news. I stuck a length of birch into the ground where I had found the first and we scanned the area. Nothing. Hands and knees seemed the best option in order to try and pick out the yellow stalks and we were rewarded, first one, then another and another followed by a cluster…they were everywhere!
One thing that can be said is from 6ft off the ground they are virtually invisible, once at ground level they suddenly appear and once you get your eye in, you’re well on the way to a full basket. Gradually we found more and more- not quite a basketful but we did slowly realize they seemed to enjoy being in the proximity of pine trees. Needless to say, I have since gone on to find many more over the last few weeks. But I’m not surprised I haven’t found them before, doubtless that you will feel the same when you find your first, unless you already have. You will be pleased to know that my virgin ‘shroomer Charlie, a fisherman based as a pilot in Inverness (or is that the other way around?) has since gone on to find plenty on his home turf.
On to the mushroom itself: Like many of my favorites, this one is a great one for beginners, as it would be difficult to confuse with anything unpleasant. The veiny wrinkled gills, brown funnel shaped cap (looks like a trumpet- it’s also known as the trumpet chanterelle) and bright yellow stem all make for an easy identification. The fact that they also grow in large troops and are actually, despite their camouflage, very common indeed makes it one to watch out for. They also have a longer season than many other fungi, as the name suggests, they can sometimes be found into January. Remember they will need a good brush down first before cooking.
In terms of flavor and texture, they are outstanding: They have a rich, yet slightly delicate taste, hold their shape well when fried or thrown in soups and stews and need very little cooking time. They also dry very quickly when put in the oven on the lowest temperature and reconstitute in no time at all- top marks for such an unassuming fungi that is rarely raved about.
I have had this mushroom in many dishes over the past few weeks, in delicious gravy with grouse, on toast, with poached eggs, tartlets etc. But to do this wonderful fungi justice I wanted to pair it with something special, so I landed on the humble potato, that’s right…potato: Joel Robuchon’s signature ‘Pomme Puree’. Better known as the most sublime mash potato ever, I have heard from a reliable source that it is so good people order it for pudding at L’Atelier. But I will make no bones about it- its bloody hard work to make!
Winter chanterelles Wood Sorrel, thyme and Pomme Puree. (Serves 2)
This recipe relies on two things: remove as much moisture from the potatoes as possible and use lots of butter. Oh, and you will need a sieve and a spatula.
- 900g of fluffy white potatoes (Maris Piper or King Edward).
- 225g of unsalted butter
- 250ml milk
- Salt & Pepper to season
In another pan, bring the milk just to the boil and set aside.
Pass the potatoes through a ricer or a sieve/colander (I have a funny Joseph & Joseph one which was perfect- If you have a ricer or a moulis, that will do the job.
Put the potato into a saucepan and on a LOW heat, stir the potato vigorously for a good 5 minutes to try and remove as much moisture as possible- your arm will hurt like buggery but the results are worth it! Gradually add the butter in tablespoon sized chunks, whilst stirring all the time, make sure each is melted and thoroughly combined before adding the next.
Slowly add the milk, a bit at a time, again stirring well, make sure it is fully combined. Have a taste- depending on your palate it may need a seasoning or not, I find a smidgen of salt & pepper is more than enough!
You can either serve it straight away or put it to one side and reheat when you need it- just make sure to keep it moving in the pan with a spatula during reheating.
For the Winter Chanterelles:
Certainly one to serve with wood sorrel, the lemony bite is a classic companion for anything fungal, add as a garnish. The mushrooms really don’t need a lot of cooking, just some butter, a few stripped sprigs of time and a little seasoning. Heat up a pan, add the butter and thyme allow the thyme to infuse for about a minute and then add the mushrooms and season, they take about 2-3 minutes till they are ready- once they start to droop slightly, they are ready to serve.
Before winter sets in, I have decided I quite fancy extending the autumn this year, so I am off to Hossegor, south-west France for November to see if I can learn anything from the Frenchies and their renowned mushroom skills. And hey, with them Winter swells shifting in from the Atlantic and the use of a 5.3 F-Bomb wetsuit, I may even fit in some surfing too. This isn’t a holiday…this is work!