Sunday, September 12, 2010

Wild Mushroom Foraging: How to tell Real Chanterelle from Fake Chanterelle

Well mushroom season is back again, finally, and we had our first outing yesterday. I'd heard from others that it was a good season already, and sure enough we weren't disappointed - sometimes we go looking and come back empty handed, but this time around I'm happy to say that we got a pretty good haul.

Boletes & Chanterelles
I've been foraging for wild mushrooms for years now, and have slowly built my skills so that I can identify mushrooms correctly. I still find it tricky to tell the difference sometimes though, I have to say, and usually find myself poring through my mushroom books once home just to make sure. Roger Phillips's "Mushrooms" (he has a website too at is my key tome, as it is for many others, but I also have several others from people like Carluccio. I actually keep the Phillips book in the back of the car with my mushroom knife - you never know when you might find something tasty!

How to Start Identifying Mushrooms

Learning how to identify mushrooms takes time above everything else, partly of course because mushrooms are seasonal, so you only have a few months in which to practice. I think there are two great pieces of advice I would pass on to any budding mushroom hunter:

  • First, get to know the major poisonous mushrooms before you know any others. There are actually quite a small group of common dangerous mushrooms, e.g. Death Cap, Panther Cap, Destroying Angel. Once you get your eye in and know what to look for it's relatively simple to spot them, and you can then be comfortable that you're protected from at least those deadly mushrooms that really will kill you.
  • Second, pick a small group (i.e. genera) of mushrooms and focus on that, so you can comfortably identity mushrooms within just that group. Once you start learning more about mushrooms you soon realise that there are many, many different structures within them that set them apart from each other, so mushrooms that previously seemed exactly alike will suddenly be quite obviously different. You learn that even things like size can be quite specific, sometimes it's possible to rule out a certain species based on size alone.

Identifying Real Chanterelle versus Fake Chanterelle

When it comes to identifying mushrooms, one thing that has taken me years to feel truly confident about is telling the fake chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis Aurantiaca) from the real chanterelle (Cantharellus Cibarius). Many books and websites will tell you that it's quite easy to tell the difference between these two, but that's not been the case in my experience, so I thought I'd share here what I know just in case others have been equally as frustrated.

Chanterelle (or Girolle as they're also sometimes known) are of course one of the very best edible mushrooms - the Italian would probably say they are the best I reckon - and we're lucky enough to know a few local patches where they grow. Mushrooms of course grow in the same spot year in year out, provided you don't damage the underground root structures (i.e. mycelium) when harvesting, so once you've found a good spot it's worth keeping it under your hat! Trouble is fake chanterelles very often grow in the same locality, so chances are you'll probably encounter both.

I've read books that say you can identify which is which by colour, but they often seem very very similar. Others say you can by smell, but whilst true chanterelles smell of apricots, I've often found fake chanterelles can smell a bit fruity too. In blind tests I've always been able to spot one from the other if I have both, but given a single species I'm not so sure I could tell by smell alone. Another point of difference seems to be that the fake has a hollow stem, but the trouble is you could possibly find a true chanterelle with enough maggot damage (the mushroom hunters nemesis!) to confuse I reckon.

For me there is one absolutely unmistakeable difference between the true chanterelle and the fake chanterelle - the gills. A true chanterelle has primitive gills, a fake chanterelle has true gills.

Now the trouble with that statement of course, at least the trouble if you're not familiar with mushroom structure, is that the chanterelle is not a fish. Gills, from a mushrooms point of view, are what runs from the stem to the rim under the cap of the mushroom. On your normal supermarket mushroom they're usually white.

I'm not going to go on at length about them here, as this is actually a really complex subject, but it's hopefully enough to say that the diversity and structure of the gills is an absolutely key part of identifying mushrooms. Some mushrooms don't even have gills, but have other structures in their place. The wonderful hedgehog mushroom (which is delicious by the way) has spines for example, not gills at all, making it almost impossible to misidentify, as mushrooms which have spines are a very small group.

Chanterelles are unusual in that they have primitive gills, and that's exactly what it sounds like. Normal mushroom gills are thin and papery, well formed and uniform. Primitive gills are more like ridges on the surface of the mushroom underbody, they tend to be more haphazard and are an extension of the underbody itself, rather than a thin sheet of material protruding from it.

But enough words from me, I'm going to let my pictures finish this post. Below are a number of shots I took of two mushrooms, the first on the left is a true chanterelle that's destined for risotto. The second mushroom on the right is a fake chanterelle that's destined for the recycling bin. Hopefully the difference between their two gill structures is clear!

Update, August 2018

Just back from a lovely walk through the woods as the season slowly shifts from Summer to Autumn, and it looks like it's amazing season for one of these two - but unfortunately it's the false chanterelle! They absolutely carpet the ground in some spots, and to the casual eye look very much like chanterelles, but on closer inspection it's obvious they're not. I picked one particularly good specimen and shot a video back home which hopefully adds a little more detail about this gills business, check it out below, as well as a few more pictures.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Food, Fashion & Fish: How being a bit different can save you a packet

I'm an avid collector of cook books, but not just any cook books. I tend to look for books which offer specific insights into a region or type of cooking, or older books which might have information which has been forgotten. You'll often find me in charity shops or second hand book shops rummaging amongst the shelves looking for hidden gems.

One of the last I picked up on one of these haunts was titled "Fishing for Food" by Trevor Housby. It was published in 1979 and sold then for the grand price of 99p. It cost me 50p, which I suppose isn't bad depreciation for something that's over 30 years old, though of course 99p would have bought you a fair bit more back in '79.

It's a fascinating book (well, more an extended pamphlet really) on all different types of fishing, whether from shore or boat, and also on lots of different types of fish and how good they are to eat. The usual suspects are there, bass for example is highly recommended, but I noticed as I skimmed through there was a section at the back for 'Odd Fish' and what should I find tucked in there but monkfish - and what it had to say there was quite surprising. It very clearly stated that "monkfish has very little value as food".

Monkfish? Not good eating?

Now I've enjoyed the odd bit of monkfish in the past, and have done the usual recipes that most cooks will have done, e.g. the roasted loin wrapped in ham, But to be honest I've never been able to justify the experience of eating monkfish with the price. It's an exorbitantly priced fish at the best of times, and when there is so much other great fish to choose to cook I can't stomach the (no pun intended!) extra cost - I just don't find I get the extra flavour that I expect with that extra cost.

On closer examination it seemed my new book was actually talking about a slightly different monkfish to the ones we usually consume - monkfish and angler fish are often called the same thing, and it's the angler fish which has the tasty tail, some other monkfish truly are not good as food. But it did spark me into thinking a bit more about food and fashion nonetheless, and specifically fish.

Last night was a case in point. I was at a local fishmonger looking for something for supper, and being the end of the day there wasn't much left. It was dabs, plaice, monkfish, dover sole or whiting. Now dover sole is marvellous stuff, no question, but very expensive too. I'm very fond of a bit of plaice though, and these were still stiff as a board they were so fresh - a great sign in fish. But it was the price that was most surprising. I could have bought some monkfish at £31 per kilo, but the plaice were selling at only £9 per kilo! No doubt in my mind what to buy, so I spent £5 on a couple of lovely fresh plaice which I then cooked up meuniere style with new potatoes and runner beans from the garden.

Plaice Meuniere

I guess many people are aware that fashion changes the price of food - it wasn't so long ago that oysters were food for the poor for example, and now they're served with champagne at specialist oyster bars. If you can move beyond the trendy food though you can save yourself a packet and still enjoy really great fish and other seafood.

Try something new, save yourself a packet

Plaice it seems is there right now, but if you're not keen on that there will always be things like dabs - fish too small and too plain to attract the interest of chefs. Another great fish that is often still cheap is Gurnard, an odd looking thing but with a wonderful flavour and a great texture too - much better than your monkfish I reckon, and at at least half the cost! My favourite way is cooking is whole and skinned with sage butter, wonderful stuff.

Gurnard pan fried whole with sage butter and lemon mash

Whatever fish you choose, just remember that something a little different might be more rewarding than you think, and be cheaper to boot. Diversity is the spice of life, so save some pennies and buy something different!

P.S. As an interesting aside, whilst researching for this post I came across this article talking about the rise of monkfish back in 1997. 
P.P.S. Another interesting aside perhaps, and a lesson to those who always trust the first website they read. Here are two articles on Gurnard. Apparently it's either got a stunning flavour and a good texture or is bland, depending who you believe :-) Personally I think I'll stick to believing my tastebuds, and they give it the thumbs up!
P.P.P.S. One final note then I'm done, honest. If you're looking for a good book on fish in general, and not only how to get your plaice into fillets but also to prepare a meuniere sauce, then look no further than Rick Stein's Seafood. Techniques and recipes for just about all the classic fish dishes you could want.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Farfalle with Broad Beans, Bacon, Red Onion & Thyme

Not strictly a Sunday roast this, but it's one of my own inventions that's good enough for sharing I think. I tend to be an inventive cook ... but as with all inventions, not everything is worth sharing, believe me! I wanted to go for a bit of a photo recipe this time around, as I'm aware I can be a bit lax with measurements - hopefully the photos make up for it.

I first knocked this together a few years back when we started to grow our own broad beans. It was one of those classic "what can I cook with these leftovers" dishes, when all I had was a ton of fresh broad beans, a few bits and pieces in the fridge, and plenty of summer sunshine. It's simplicity itself to make - the secret of all good Italian food, but relies on excellent quality ingredients in the correct proportions - that's the other secret to Italian cooking, and the one that most people tend to overlook.

Fresh broad beans, ready for cooking
Now in truth I'm not brilliant at measuring ingredients - unless I'm baking I tend to play it very much by eye/nose/whatever. I can't give exact proportions here, but hopefully the pictures will give you a clear idea of just how much of everything you'll need if you wanted to try and replicate this dish.


  • Farfalle pasta (the little bows)
  • Broad beans (cooked and shelled unless very fresh)
  • Streaky bacon (I prefer mine unsmoked, but that's a matter of personal preference)
  • Red onion, thiny sliced
  • Fresh thyme
  • Lemon zest
  • A little white wine (optional really)
  • Creme fraiche

Some of the ingredients

First off prepare the thyme and lemon. I love thyme - well, I love all herbs to be honest! - so am very generous, but add as much as you think you'd like to eat. The lemon zest should be done lengthways to give a little texture as well as flavour, and the thyme simply needs to be pulled off the woody stems.

Lemon Zest and Thyme
Now the broad beans. Cook the de-podded beans by boiling in salted water for about 8-10 minutes or so, depending how large they are, and then leaving them to cool slightly. You're trying to get a very slight al dente type bean, doesn't matter if some are firm as they will be reheated again. Slip off the outer skin once cool, which should come off nice and easily, and put the lustrous green bean halves to one side.

Cooking broad beans - two different varieties here, hence the different colours
The cooked beans. These have been added to the Thyme/Lemon mix as this will all be added back in to the pan at the same time
Next get some onion cooking. You're looking for quite a sweet finish, so the onions are going to need to cook in a mixture of olive oil and butter for at least 15 minutes in order to sweeten. Whilst they're cooking put a large pan of salted water on to boil for the pasta.

Onions cooking, these are about half way there
Now the bacon. Once the onions are cooked take them out of the pan, and add in the bacon chopped into strips. No need for extra oil or butter as the fat from the bacon itself will soon cook down and do the job for you. Crispier the better in my book, but cook to taste. When the bacon is about half way there, you'll need to get the pasta in the water. Different farfalle's will take different lengths of time, but for an average farfalle cooking time of 10 minutes now is the right time.

Farfalle pasta
Once the bacon is crispy, it's time for the rest of the ingredients to go back in. Add back in the onions and the broad bean, thyme and lemon mixture.

Bacon, onion, broad beans, thyme and lemon back in the pan
Once this comes back to temperature deglaze with a splash of white wine if you like, cook off some of the liquid, and then add in a good dollop or two of creme fraiche.

Adding in creme fraiche
You should end up with quite a loose sauce, ready to dress the pasta with.

All the sauce ingredients mixed together
Season well with salt & pepper, and add the pasta to the sauce (or should you add the sauce to the pasta? I'm never convinced by either camp if I'm honest) and you're done.

Pasta just added to the sauce, ready to mix
Top tip for pasta here - when you're draining it, always try and keep a little of the water from the pasta back in the pan. You can then use this liquid to loosen the sauce if you're accidentally let either the sauce or the cooked pasta get a little too dry.

Once you're ready either serve the past straight, or you can add a little more thyme and some parmesan for that finishing touch. I also like a couple of Bibanesi on the side, but that's not something you can easily get in the UK

The finished dish
A scrumptious light summer lunch, full of seasonal freshness and healthy to boot. What more could you want?


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