It is very cold, and mist curls through the bronzing leaves of the forest canopy, turning trees into hulking shadows, half-hidden keepers of old secrets. The feeling in my fingers is gone. Dewdrops collect in my beard and eyebrows, and I cannot feel my nose. Although I am shivering, and somewhat lost, I am full of the excitement of the hunt. A successful one, as I have just stumbled on my first ever winter chanterelles.
Mushroom season is in full swing, and I am taking the opportunity to restock my stores for the winter. Last year the forest floor was crowded with troops of boletes; ceps, bay boletes, slippery jacks. This year there are almost no bay boletes, but more ceps. It goes like this, a waxing and waning with no discernible reason. The one thing you can predict about mushrooms is that they are unpredictable. I have picked a couple of kilos, that are now sliced and drying by the fire, and hope for a few more before the season ends and the fungi retreat underground to pass whispered messages from tree to tree.
Most foragers have a wish-list, plants or fungi that they want to find because they are rare, or delicious, or beautiful (not always to be picked, just seen). It is always a thrill to discover a species for the first time, and it adds to the knowledge of the landscape; more details of the terroir can be inferred from the presence, or lack, of plants, fungi, animals. Through hard work and luck my list is now quite short, and today a little shorter. Although what I shall do once the list is all crossed off I do not know.
Winter chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis) are also known as trumpet chanterelles or yellowlegs. Viewed from above they are fairly nondescript (and thus easily overlooked). They have a dull brown cap that is convex with a little dimple in young specimens. The cap becomes funnel shaped in larger examples, the dimple becoming a hole that sometimes runs right down through the stem. It does not have gills, rather it has wavy, forked, yellow-to-grey ridges, a bit like the true chanterelle; this is an important factor for identification. The stem is hollow, flimsy, and bright yellow (hence yellowlegs). The smell is faintly fruity with a peppery background. They are to be found growing from autumn right through December, in the undergrowth and damp places of pine and beech forests. They are, apparently, quite common, although I cannot speak to this.
Once again, don’t eat it if you’re at all unsure of identity.
My discovery came when I noticed an entirely different mushroom, and stopped to have a look. Peering into thick yellow grass, my eye happened on a single specimen. The longer I stared, the more blades of grass revealed themselves to actually be the stems of winter chanterelles. Ten minutes of grubbing around in the undergrowth netted a good couple of handfuls, and, happily, I can report that they are worth the effort and chilly knees; they have a strong, sweet mushroomy flavour, a good firm texture, and keep their startling yellow colour when cooked (they are pretty bitter raw).
I recommend that the first time you try a new mushroom, you try just a little to ensure you have no allergic reactions. I also recommend that you cook them simply, allowing the true nature of the fungi to be revealed rather than masked in other flavours. Sautéed in butter, with a little garlic, and served on toast. For my first winter chanterelles I wanted a simple recipe with a bit of effort required, in a nod to the effort it took to get them to the kitchen in the first place. To this end I made fresh pasta, for which I include the recipe, but you can use dried, it’ll be almost as good.
Winter Chanterelle Tagliatelle
This is the sort of recipe where you don’t really need precise amounts. Just cook everything, adding a little more of this, a dash of that, until it looks, smells, and tastes like something you want to eat. I have supplied amounts below, to give a guide.
Ingredients (serves 4)
a couple of good handfuls of winter chanterelles, brushed clean
250g unsmoked streaky bacon, chopped into lardons
1 onion, finely diced
1 large clove of garlic, finely diced
1 large glass of dry white wine
a good knob of salted butter
a handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped, plus a few leaves for garnish
30g parmesan, grated
salt and pepper, to taste
300g dried pasta, or
for the pasta
400g type ’00’ flour
4 eggs, beaten
For the pasta, empty the flour onto a clean work surface in a pile. Make a well in the middle and add the eggs. Use your fingers to mix it all together, a little at a time, until properly incorporated. Knead the dough until it feels smooth and silky, then wrap in clingfilm and put it in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour. When ready, either use a pasta machine to roll thin and then cut using the taglietelle attachment, or cut into pieces and roll as thin as you can with a rolling pin. Then, roll it up into a sausage shape and use a sharp knife to cut into slices about 1cm wide – you can then unroll your tagliatelle. Use a light dusting of flour as you work to avoid the pasta clumping together. Dust the finished tagliatelle with a little more flour or semolina, cover, and refrigerate until needed.
For the sauce, add a knob of butter to a hot frying pan. When sizzling, add the bacon and onion, and cook on a medium heat until the onion is translucent. Add the mushrooms and cook for a further 5 minutes – add a little more butter if it’s starting to look dry. Add the garlic and parsley, and give it a quick stir. Turn up the heat a little and pour in the white wine. Allow to reduce by half, then add the cream and a little of the parmesan, and simmer for a further 5 minutes until starting to thicken.
Meanwhile, bring a pan of salted water to the boil. Add your pasta and cook for 3-4 minutes until al dente (or follow packet instructions if using dried).
Drain the pasta well, place in the pan with the sauce and give it a stir until it’s got a good coating. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve, garnish with the remaining parmesan and a few sprigs of parsley, and plan your next trip to the woods.