November can be depressing month for the committed forager. The vivid green herbs of spring, heady blooms of summer and fecund forests of early autumn can seem like a distant memory when the clocks change and regular frosts start to perish even the hardiest of sloes. But the winter chanterelle is a common, easy to identify and delicious mushroom that can be picked in large numbers right through November and well into December – especially in mild, moist Galloway.
With their drab brown caps (3-7cm across) and flimsy flesh, winter chanterelles aren’t nearly so glamorous as the true yolky-golden chanterelle (Cantharellus Cibarius). Confusingly, the French refer to our chanterelles as girolle and winter chanterelles as chanterelles. Thats why you will often find up-market (or possibly pretentious) restaurants selling girolle. As if the world of wild mushrooms wasn’t confusing enough! This is why scientific names are really useful sometimes – although even they change quite regularly as scientists re-categorise (not so long ago, C. Tubaeformis was known as Cantherellus Infundibuliformis).
Frozen trumpet chanterelles in December
Fortunately, once you look beneath the wavy, irregular cap, identification becomes much easier. Most obvious is the bright yellow/orange stem which gives the common name of yellow-leg. The beige gills are also distinctive by being vein-like rather than deeply grooved (think combed plastercene) on trumpet chanterelles, or even less substantial wrinkles in the case of golden chanterelles. These two species are so similar to the non-scientist that in this instance it isn’t crucial to distinguish between them – both are good eating mushrooms with a sweet fruity scent (you need to stick your nose in a basketful to smell this) and a delicate, earthy flavour. A final identification feature is the funnel-like cap and hollow stem of fully grown specimens.
Spotting the dingy caps of winter chanterelles in leaf-strewn woodland can be incredibly difficult – even if you know where you are looking. I return every year to a specific tree beneath which I know they will be growing, but it can still take several minutes to spot the first one. Then, as so often occurs while foraging, my eyes seem to tune into the right wavelength and dozens of mushrooms magically emerge from the leaf litter.
Where established, they can occur in large numbers – I once found a densely packed foot wide pathway of them forming a huge ring. In the exact centre of the ring was a large and perfectly formed cep. No wonder mushrooms are often associated with fairies!
Can you spot the 8 mushrooms in this picture
Winter chanterelles mostly grow in association with conifers, especially beneath spruce and pine, though I have found them under beech trees too. You can even find them in those large, soulless deserts of sitka that support very little else (mushrooms don’t need light to thrive), though in my experience they prefer habitats with a good damp covering of moss and leaf litter.
Though not in the first tier of gourmet fungi, winter chanterelles are well up the second and can vastly improve any mushroom dish. They have a high water content so I sometimes resort to wringing them out before cooking. Their slippery texture and earthy flavour make them a natural partner in creamy, garlicy sauces – especially with linguine. They grow during the pheasant shooting season and fit naturally in any game casseroles, pies or stews – see the recipe for Pheasants with winter chanterelles and root vegetables.
If you are lucky enough to find some, the chances are you will gather enough for more than one meal. As they don’t dry particularly well, I recommend preserving gluts of them in vinegar.