“We get the European ones from May onwards, but the main Scottish harvest doesn’t start until July,” says Tony Booth, Britain’s top wild mushroom wholesaler. “It’s a very secretive world where people jealously guard their patches, so I only know they sell their harvest direct to agents who grade them, pack them and send them south . . . ”
Mr Booth is talking about one of the gastronomic highlights of our countryside, Cantharellus cibarius, better known to British fungiphiles as the chanterelle. Every year he sells these by the hundredweight to upmarket restaurants and hotels. These in turn use tiny quantities of this delicately fluted, golden, trumpets to flavour and decorate highly-priced dishes.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of us walk past the valuable wild bounty that cascades out of the leaf mould by our feet – oblivious not only to their identity, but to the very existence of these pretty little mushrooms. For although bright yellow and often growing clustered together in huge numbers, they are surprisingly well-camouflaged, disappearing into backdrop of leaf mould and dead grass that form the backdrop to their woodland habitat. Nevertheless, they are relatively common, thriving in woods and along hedge bottoms all over the country.
In England and Wales they are most often associated with broadleafs, particularly birch, beech and hazel, but in Scotland they grow in profusion in the vast conifer plantations that cloak so much of the landscape.
The chanterelle’s scientific name, Cantharellus cibarius, comes from the Greek kantharos (goblet) and the latin cibus (food), but ironically its British common name is a case of mistaken identity. It says much about Anglo-Saxon reservations about wild fungi that its short hop across the Channel it transferred from a little brown flute (Cantharellus infundibuliformis) to its more familiar yellow cousin. In reality the we should call our chanterelle a girolle (which, incidentally, is how they are known to the wholesale and restaurant trades). To the French the chanterelle is what we call the winter chanterelle.
Regardless of names, these are among the easier fungi to identify with certainty. Like most wild mushrooms, they do not grow regularly, but start as little buttons pushing out of the soil on stalks, before the caps spread out into an irregular funnel perched on a deeply-veined stalk.
Another tell-tale indicator is the scent. Although faint, a basketful of chanterelles has a distinct whiff of apricots that is lacking from the main source of confusion: the false chanterelle. The latter is not edible (although the books can’t agree on whether this means undistinguished or mildly poisonous) and is an altogether less substantial fungus, with a thin stalk and usually sporting a much more garish orange colour. It’s veins are tinner and if one traces these up the stalk, they are like the branches of a tree, dividing again and again until they reach the cap. In contrast those of the true chanterelle are thicker and much more irregular, rather like the channels cut by water running across mud: splitting only to rejoin their neighbours.
Unfortunately the British phobia of wild mushrooms means the merest hint of uncertainty over identification is enough to deter most of us from even trying. This is a pity because they are fiercely prized by those in the know. Mr Booth’s Scottish pickers are not alone in jealously guarding the location of their patches from rivals. In the early ‘90s the woods of Oregon rang with gunfire in what became known as the ‘chanterelle wars’, with rival gangs of commercial pickers battling over prime patches. Two pickers lost their lives before a licensing system restored some semblance of calm.
Why the frenzy? The reason is that this delicate little fungus has one of the most exquisite flavours of any wild mushroom. Slightly bitter when raw, when cooked its apricot aroma lingers on, working particularly well with dairy- or egg-based dishes. Try it lightly fried in butter with a little garlic, declarifying the pan with a little vermouth and serving on a slice of toasted brioche with a garnish of chopped parsley. One taste and the chances are you too will be scouring your woods through the summer for these little golden treasures. Strike lucky and you too will be guarding your patch as jealously as any professional.