Those among you who are early risers and fond of morning woodland walks may have noticed, lurking among the trees, strange hunched figures staring intently at the ground. Don’t be alarmed – it’s mushroom season, and many a mushroom buff is out and about, stalking the edge of woodland tracks, checking around the base of trees and under bracken for one of their most-prized treasures: the delicious chanterelle mushroom.
Seasoned mushroom hunters are almost fanatical about chanterelles. They all have their favourite spots – but don’t expect them to tell you where they are. Hard-core hunters keep them a closely guarded secret. After years of wild mushroom picking, the buffs know exactly where to go, and which spots are seasonally early or late bloomers.
That’s not to say that chanterelle hunting is only for the experts. The lucky amateur can also find a feast fit for a king. If you’re fortunate enough to find them, mark the place well in your mind, as they also tend to grow year after year in the same location.
First is to know what to look for: Chanterelles are bright golden, fleshy mushrooms found growing around oak, birch, scotts pine and beech trees. Here in Ireland, there’s only one other mushroom that they can be mistaken for: the aptly named false chanterelle – an edible but indifferent species with thin flesh and insipid taste.
While a genuine chanterelle smells quite fruity – it smells of apricot to be exact – the false mushroom boasts no such olfactory delights. The gills of a genuine chanterelle run from underneath its cap right down to the bulk of the stem, eventually tapering off. The gills of the false chanterelle stop abruptly at a ring that runs around the top of the stem.
To be on the safe side, first-time pickers should consult a book (‘Forest Fungi in Ireland’, by Paul Dowding and Louis Smith is good) or, better still, go hunting with more-seasoned pickers. The best time to go looking is at dawn, as the mushrooms grow during the night. By hitting the trail early, you’ll also have a better chance of reaching the chanterelle before the insects decide to dine on them.
To give you an idea of just how sought after these magnificent little yellow fungi are, a kilo of fresh chanterelles will set you back anywhere from €25 to a whopping €50. Yep, they’re that good.
When cooking chanterelle, the simplest recipes are best, as the mushrooms’ flavour is allowed to speak for itself.
If you only have a few, fry on the pan in a bit of butter. Like all mushrooms, they release quite a lot of water. Keep frying until the water’s gone off the pan and the flesh starts to colour with cooking. Add salt and pepper and whack them on a slice of toast – or scramble them into an egg.
Wilted Spinach Salad with Chanterelles
For color and taste contrast, golden chanterelles and deep-green spinach are a great combination. Serve on warm plates and garnish with wedges of egg if you like.
> 1/2 lb chanterelles, sliced
> 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
> 5 bacon slices, chopped
> 1 lb spinach
> 5 green onions, diced
> 5 radishes, sliced
> 3 tablespoons dry red wine vinegar
> Salt and pepper to taste
> 1 hard-boiled egg, cut into wedges (optional)
> Parboil the chanterelles for three to five minutes. Drain. Marinate the chanterelles in the lemon juice for 15 minutes.
> In a large sauté pan or skillet, fry the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve. Discard all but two tablespoons of the bacon fat from the pan.
> Clean and wash the spinach in several changes of water. Cut away tough stems. Dry the spinach well and mix with the green onions, radishes, and marinated chanterelles.
> Heat the bacon fat in the pan. Add the vinegar and bacon and, while still hot, pour it over the spinach mixture and toss. Serve on warm dishes and garnish with wedges of egg