In between the wild autumn storms that have been blowing up the coast where we live, the sun has been shining at regular intervals, bright and warm, making the colourful big leaf maples glow and pop against the evergreen rainforest.
A couple of weeks ago, a visit from one of our girls and her partner got us out of the usual routine and into some traditional autumnal activities. It was high time for a walk in the forest and a bit of mushroom hunting.
We invited our neighbour and her children to join us as we set off, each carrying a small knife and a bucket or bag in which to carry our mushroom treasures home.
I have been foraging for mushrooms as long as I can remember; from the fields of my childhood, where we gathered pink-gilled meadow mushrooms, to the moss carpeted forests of the islands we now call home where we often look for yellow chanterelles, white oyster mushrooms and the burgundy coloured Zeller’s boletus.
Perhaps the activity of mushroom hunting is genetic. My mother’s Polish uncle once combed the lawns of suburban Forest Hills, near his home on Long Island, New York in search of edible wild mushrooms. He and my great-aunt kept a gallon sized jar of dried cep in their kitchen nook, the bounty of their Sunday afternoon strolls, handy for tossing into a pot of soup on the back of the kitchen range.
Another elderly Polish relative, who once lived in the Dordogne region of France, showed me where to look for edible mushrooms, particularly the King boletus or cep, in the oak and chestnut woods near his 17th century stone cottage. There, local folk have been collecting edible fungi for millennium.
In the south of England, where I once lived, I have spent leisurely Sunday afternoons, mushroom-hunting with friends in rural woodlands. Travelling to work on the London underground I often saw a white-aproned kitchen minion from Antonio Carluccio’s famous Covent Garden restaurant carrying a linen-covered basket full of plump wild fungi, gathered that morning for delivery to one of the city’s fresh produce markets.
There are professional mushroom hunters who earn some or all of their livings gathering and selling the mushrooms they find. The other day they would have been very poor indeed as there were not many fungi to be found where we were hunting. We did each manage to find a few chanterelles to bring home and C. and I also came across a couple of cauliflower mushrooms or Sparassis crispa, a delicious wild fungi aptly named for its crisp texture and its resemblance to the creamy vegetable we also like to eat.
Correctly identifying wild mushrooms is crucial, many wild fungi can make a person seriously ill. Some can easily kill you. The average beginner would do well to invest in a good identification book, and to seek out an experienced mycologist to confirm the edibility of their mushroom finds. Personally, I gather only the varieties that I am certain are good to eat.
The best book for mushroom identification that I have found is The New Savory Wild Mushroom by Margaret McKenny and Daniel E. Stuntz (Washington/Greystone, 1996). It contains good, colour photographs of the mushrooms likely to be found in the forests of the Pacific Northwest where we live along with detailed information about the edibility of each variety.
The other book I keep on the kitchen bookshelf is A Passion for Mushrooms by Antonio Carluccio (Pavilion Books, 1990). Although Carluccio wrote about gathering mushrooms in Europe and Great Britain, many of the varieties are the same as those found in our neck of the woods. This volume contains excellent colour photographs of edible wild mushrooms as well as a collection of delicious mushroom recipes.
When we returned home from our expedition last week, I arranged the mushrooms we had gathered in a single layer on a sheet of newspaper in the cool, dark pantry. We ate some apricot-coloured chanterelles that evening, lightly sautéed in butter with a bit of minced onion and garlic, sprinkled with a little salt and pepper, a few chopped parsley leaves and finished off with a dash of whipping cream. The mixture made a tasty side dish for our supper of grilled salmon.
After a few days the rest of the mushrooms were beginning to look a little dehydrated, so I decided to prepare a pot of wild mushroom soup which helped to reconstitute those fruits of the forest.
The heavy rains and cooler temperatures of the coming winter will soon put an end to our mushroom foraging, but in the kitchen cupboard I still have several jars full of local, dried boletus and some pine mushrooms as well as a few dried porcini that I bought a long time ago in Chinatown.
Soaked in hot water for thirty minutes or so, these dried fungi will keep us in savoury mushroom flavourings for stews, soups and casseroles until the next mushroom hunting season arrives.
My Wild Mushroom Soup
- ¼ cup butter
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 3-4 cups sliced or chopped chanterelles and/or cauliflower mushrooms and/or other edible mushrooms
- ½ cup minced onion
- 2-4 cloves minced garlic
- Pinch of red chili flakes
- Pinch of dried thyme
- 2 Tbsp. plain flour
- Dash of white wine (optional)
- 1 litre stock (chicken, turkey, beef or vegetable)
- ½ – 1 cup milk or cream
- Salt and black pepper
- Several sprigs of parsley, chopped
In a heavy saucepan melt butter and olive oil until foamy. Add onion and sauté until transparent.
Add garlic, red chili flakes and dried thyme and sauté a few minutes more. Add prepared mushrooms and cook over a medium-low heat until tender .
Add flour and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly. Add the stock and wine if using, stirring and cooking until smooth. Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until mushrooms are on the soft side.
If you like your mushroom soup chunky, simply add the milk or cream and heat through gently. If you prefer a smooth soup, use an immersion blender to purée the soup before adding the cream. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with chopped parsley before serving. Serves four generously.