Monday, 19 September 2011

A ring of bright mushrooms

Gavin Maxwell was left unimpressed by chanterelles. In Ring of Bright Water he recounts them growing in profusion near Camusfeàrna, the fictitious name he gave to his home in the West Highlands. But he describes them as insipid and flavourless, not worth the bother of collecting, 'their beauty but skin-deep, more appropriate to the magic of moss and fern and rushing water than to the table.'

Mostly chanterelles and a few edible boletus
By his own admission Maxwell wasn't much good at identifying wild mushrooms and, unsure whether what he had collected was safe to eat, disconsolately consigned his haul to the rubbish pit. It was perhaps a wise precaution if in doubt, especially as he lived alone (otters excepted), but such a shame. If he was truly coming upon chanterelles in such quantity then they were a lucky find indeed. It is not that chanterelles are especially rare, far from it, but they are quite localised and have a tendency to grow in inaccessible locations. Last year I spent a thoroughly enjoyable day hanging upside down on a precarious river bank in Galloway trying to pluck the yolk-yellow trumpets that seemed to grow quite deliberately just out of reach.

On that day I went out with a seasoned forager who knew just where to look. Chanterelle haunts, I learned, tend to be closely guarded secrets. Contrary to Gavin Maxwell's lack of enthusiasm, many hunters prize them above all other species and for a short season in late summer / early autumn the race is on to find the golden treasure. Hotels and restaurants will pay a fair price to suppliers willing to brave the mud and the midges, so no wonder the best locations are not generously broadcast.

A few inedible Russula on the right
As our eyes grew accustomed, once we knew exactly what we were looking for, they were unmistakeable. The colour alone is enough to identify them, rich yellow-orange like they had been freshly squeezed from an artist's tube of oil paint. The wide gills run into the stem giving them their classic horn-like shape. They have a rubbery texture and smell faintly fruity. We got a good catch that day and they weren't for sale.  We lived on chanterelle omelettes and chanterelle risotto and chanterelles on toast for days and they were delicious. I can only assume Gavin Maxwell wasn't cooking them right. The tasty compounds they contain are fat and alcohol soluble, so they are no good for boiling. Frying in oil or butter or with a little white wine brings out all the goodness. And if you need a further justification for eating them, they are a valuable source of vitamins too.

Gavin Maxwell was quite an adventurer, traveling widely in the Middle East in the 1950s and trying his hand at all kinds of escapades including a spell of shark farming! But fungi he grew up to treat with suspicion. Consequently the rich supplement to his diet of tinned food that grew all around him at Camusfeàrna went 'unmolested' to use his word. They were left 'to flourish among the ferns and dappled sunlight of the birches by the burns and the hidden waterfalls, their many hues of violet and green, red and orange, nibbled at by discerning and appreciative rodents'.  Oh well,  suum cuique pulchrum est (to each his own is beautiful) I suppose.

1 comment:

  1. Suum cuique pulchrum est indeed. To an avid mushroom and fungi hunter, and chanterelle being one of my favourite, there is something infinitely satisfying and beautiful about eating something gathered over a period of hours, sought and found. A delicious post, Anhrefn. Just looking at your wonderful pictures made my mouth water. Yummy!