Of all the places to be buttonholed by a mycophile. A craft beer sharing-bottle gathering that got the festive season off to a very jolly start for five dedicated trenchermen. Except I left with a small amount of semi-drunken shame at being so ignorant of all the wild mushrooms out there after our resident expert had expounded on the joys of foraging. Oh to be able to rhapsodise too about finally chancing upon an epic cluster of hen of the wood just yards from your cottage.
So will I take the fungi plunge in 2022? Probably not. A residual fear of going down the inadvertent toxic route has kept me from taking a basket into the trees and perhaps harvesting the likes of Deadly Webcap, Death Cap, Destroying Angel or Funeral Bell (the names are the giveaway).
OK, so the rare Deadly Webcap (Cortinarius rubellus), which lurks among heather and bilberry, is unlikely to crop up in my neck of the woods. In Europe, though, gatherers have consumed it it and perished after mistaking it for magic mushrooms (Psilocybe species) or chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius).
The former my brain can live without, the latter I’m happy to pay for by the punnet in season from the Valley Veg stall that sets up next to St Michael’s Church, Mytholmroyd every Saturday morning. We’re never likely to match the wealth of available wild mushrooms in European market but such a local initiative is good to have.
Yet even shopping at the stall I’ve been confronted by a mycological mystery. My favourite greengrocer calls the chanterelles girolles. Are they one and the same? Well, yes and no. I consulted Jane Grigson’s scholarly Mushroom Feast (1975) first and relished her minute description of this strong-flavoured apricot-orange fungus as “a curving trumpet, with delicate ribs running from the stalk through to the under edge of the cap like fine vaulting”.
I turned to the book’s index. Just after Chalon du Bled, Louis (Marquis d’Uxelles) 28-29 (for whom La Varenne created the classic shallot and champignon ‘crumb’, duxelles) I found Chanterelle, see Girolle(s).
Grigson indeed finds the names interchangeable. Chanterelle come to us from the French but they prefer to call them girolles. The waters are muddied further by Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion To Food listing different variants in France itself and across the globe with assorted Latin names.
With this in mind I’m inclined to follow the argument of Rosy Thornton of Emmanuel College, , who writes on one forum: ‘Chanterelle’ is the name of a whole family of fungi, which includes the girolle, which is probably the most delicious and highly sought-after of the chanterelles. But the family also includes other fungi which are not girolles: for example, the trompette de mort (horn of plenty) and the chanterelle gris (trumpet chanterelle).
One thing that is certain is chanterelles/girolles are near impossible to cultivate. The best place to find them is on mossy forest floors around maple, beech, and oak trees. Prepared simply they are delicious, even if I’m inclined to discount the hint of apricot flavour the fanciful link to their appearance. Their texture is tougher than ordinary mushrooms, so Alan Davidson suggests you oak the fresh fungi in milk overnight, starting them on a low heat, so they exude their own juices and can be cooked slowly in them.
They go well with eggs, while the French love to team them à la forestière” with bacon and potatoes. Jane Grigson’s favourite way is serving them on buttered toast, which in her day wouldn’t have been sourdough. She even inclined towards simple biscottes (rusks) as base for the extravagant amount of girolles in her recipe, below. Perhaps they carpeted the woods around Trôo, her Loire home.
She prefaced her recipe thus: ”In spite of undeniably good recipes like the girolles à la forestière” or the delicious flavour of chicken and girolles together, I still think that the best way of eating them is the simplest one of all. If you choose biscottes in preference to bread, you will agree with me, I think, that this recipe combines crispness and beautifully flavoured chewiness, both set off by butter, black pepper and some parsley.”
2-3 pounds girolles; butter; one clove garlic finely chopped; salt, freshly ground black pepper; chopped parsley; well buttered biscottes or toasts.
Trim off the earthy part of the girolle stems, then wash the caps quickly but carefully, and drain them well. Cook them in several tablespoons of butter, adding the garlic. Keep the heat high, once the mushrooms begin exuding their juice – some people drain off this liquid, and complete the cooking of the mushrooms in fresh butter. It very much depends on how wet or dry the girolles are, which again depends on the season in which they are picked. The answer is to drain off the liquid if it doesn’t evaporate before the mushrooms are cooked; they must not be allowed to stew to leather. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with parsley, and serve on biscottes or toasts immediately.”
My mushroom challenge for 2022
Glad that’s settled. My New Year resolution now is to challenge our dedicated mushroom hunter-gatherer to come up with a Jew’s Ear (Auricilaria auricilaria-judae). Much prized for its flavour and texture by the Chinese, who dry it, it is also known as wood ear. The anti-semitic name dates back to the Middle Ages, possibly a reference to Judas, who reputedly hanged himself from an elder tree – the host species.
Why do I crave this particular specimen? What’s not to like about this description in Richard Mabey’s classic Food for Free (1972): “I can imagine no food more forbidding in appearance than the Jew’s Ear. It hangs in folds from decaying elder branches like slices of some ageing kidney, clammy and jelly-like the touch. It is no fungus to leave around the house if you have sensitive relations, or even to forget about in your own pocket.”
And it’s safe to eat as long as you cook it. It’s always the good lookers you have to watch out for.