Chanterelle – Identification, Distribution, Edibility, Ecology, Sustainable Harvesting

Chanterelle – Cantherellus Cibarius

AKA Sometimes referred to as “golden chanterelles” to further distinguish them from winter chanterelles. Pfiefferling (Germany), (Vanlig) Kantareli (Sweden), gallinaccio (Italy). Girolle (France) – note that in France the term “chanterelle” is used to refer to winter chanterelles, and many classically trained chefs often use the term “girolle” to refer to cantharellus cibarius.

In North America recent DNA analysis of what was previously classified as Cantharellus cibarius has shown to be a group of related species known as the Cantharellus cibarius group or species complex,

Chanterelle, cantharellus cibarius

  • Edibility – 4/5 – Delightful, tasty, firm textured mushrooms, with a delicate flavour, but lacking the mushroomy intensity and umami of some wild mushrooms.
  • Identification – 4/5 – Possible confusion with False Chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca), which is more-or-less edible, and not dangerous – see below for how to tell them from chanterelles.  Jack-o’-lanterns (Omphalotus illudens) are toxic but extremely rare in the UK, confined to a few locations in SE England. They are more common in central and Southern Europe and in the US (East of the Rocky Mountains). Jack-o’lanterns grow from (often buried) decaying hardwood roots and stumps.
  • Distribution – 3/5 – Widespread within suitable habitats, more common in the N and W of the UK as they thrive in damp summers. Undisturbed, and provided their partner trees remain healthy, chanterelle mycelia can produce fungi on the same location (to the point of specific trees) for many years. I have some locations I have been visiting for 35 years.
  • Season – June-November – A relatively slow growing and slow-to-decompose mushroom (see below for more on this), predominantly a summer harvest in Scotland, thriving in damp, mild, summer conditions. Usually later the further South in the UK (or Europe) you go, but easily influenced by  micro-climatic variations.
  • Habitat: Under Beech, birch, oak, scots pine, sitka spruce. I’ve also heard reports of them growing with chestnut and hazel, but haven’t seen this myself. Chanterelles have a preference for acidic soils. In Scotland they can be hyper-abundant under conifer plantations – usully sitka spruce.
  • Ecological role: Ectomycorrhizal with their partner trees, aiding in the tree’s uptake of water and nutrients. Unlike many other wild mushrooms, chanterelles are very rarely colonised by fungal gnat larvae, and are generally resistant to other insects and slugs, which certainly increases their appeal to foragers. A study in Finland showed that less than 1 percent of chanterelles were colonised by insects, compared to 40 to 80 percent in other fungal taxa. Chanterelle subspecies in the midwestern and southeastern United States do not appear to have the same level of insect resistance. See here for further exploration of this.
  • Health Uses:  Chanterelles have antibacterial and antiviral properties and contains eight useful amino acids. They also have anti-oxidant properties and contains compounds that have been variously reported as helping to improve liver function, reduce cholesterol, treat thrombosis, and suppress cancer-causing agents.
  • Considerate and Sustainable Harvesting of Chanterelles: This is such an interesting and nuanced subject that I have given it a page of its own here.

Chanterelles, July, Scotland

It can feel like finding the mythical pot of gold at the end of a rainbow when you come across a cluster of these beautiful mushrooms on a shady woodland floor. They are the most widely commercially harvested wild fungi in Scotland, loving our damp, mild climate and extensive birch and beech woodlands and are highly esteemed by food-lovers.

If ceps are the kings of the mushroom world, then chanterelles are undoubtedly its queens. Their elegant beauty and subtle fruity aroma bely their true robust, earthy personality. For me they are works of high art, illuminating their mossy forest realm with golden yolky brilliance.

Classic chanterelle habitat when growing with beech trees – mossy ditch sides

They tend to hold court in the same locations year after year, with a particular liking for damp mossy banks beneath beech and wet mossy grass under birch. They also can do well under scots pine and (less often) oak. They do particularly well in wet sitka spruce plantations, especially in the Scottish highlands.

While their flavour perhaps isn’t quite as good as that of ceps, they more than make up for it in looks and texture. And if you are picking your own, there is something  wonderfully sensual about easing them from their mossy beds in the dancing shadows of beech and birch trees.

Their other great advantage over most other types of wild mushroom is that they are not susceptible to maggot infestation and will happily lounge in damp moss and grass for several weeks without deteriorating. They also enjoy a long growing season, especially on the west coast of Scotland, where I have picked fully grown specimens as early as May and as late as January.

For responsible foragers, determining exactly what is a fully grown chanterelle that has had plenty of time to spread its spores can be a tricky judgement. I generally advocate not picking any with a cap diameter less than 2cm. Some, especially those growing directly out of firm moss may never reach 2cm, especially if they get hit by a dry spell mid-growth,  but I think its best to give them a chance. More on this here.

Chanterelles are robust and persistent in habitats they like. I’ve been harvesting from some of my spots every year for 30 years now. They have better years and worse years but all the evidence suggests that harvesting has little or no impact on the mycelium that gives life to them. Having said that, constant heavy cropping of immature mushrooms is pretty inconsiderate behaviour. I urge anyone picking any wild mushroom to exercise restraint (I know it can be hard) until they really get to know their patches. Please read my guidelines for responsible picking.

 

How to tell a Chanterelle from a False Chanterelle

You would think that such charming and striking little mushrooms would be easy enough to identify without fear of mistakes. For the most part they are, but fungi never quite give themselves up that easily. You should be aware of the false chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca) which can easily be mistaken for true chanterelles if you are not used to the feel, or gestalt, of the true mushroom. This is not a life-threatening mistake should you make it, as the imposter is edible, though not nearly so good and may cause mild hallucinations for some people. I have never been this lucky.

The false chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca) has true (though shallow) gills which are decurrent (run down the stem) but tend to end more abruptly than true chants. The cap is finely downy and often rolled in at the margin. It is generally more rounded in shape and flimsier. Found only beneath conifers.

 

False Chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca)

 

True chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius): Note their stocky build, even when immature. Gills like “combed plastercine”. Usually with a highly irregular margin when mature. Some report a smell of apricots, and they can definitely smell “fruity”, but sometimes you’ll need a whole basket load for this to become noticeable.

 

How To Cook Chanterelles

Chanterelles are a true gastronome’s mushroom. They are regularly paired with eggs, and while I suspect a little colour sympathy here, they really are delicious in good, snotty scrambled eggs (made with double cream, and perhaps a trickle of truffle oil). I go a step further and put them, after cooking, in tarts or my famous “mile-high wild pie” with other foraged goodies like sea beet or orache. A sprinkle of wood sorrel (from which the mushrooms were probably picked) on a finished dish sets it off a treat.

Mile-high wild pie under construction, with soft-boiled eggs nestled into pre-cooked chanterelles.

Don’t make the all-too-common mistake of undercooking chanterelles. In this age of al-dente vegetables, people tend to forget that some foods benefit from longer cooking. Chanterelles, like all fungi, have a high water content which needs to be driven off to intensify their flavour and firm up their texture. Fungi don’t break down with cooking in the same way as vegetables tend to due to their cell walls being composed of compound called chitin.

There are two approaches you can take when cooking chanterelles.

The simple method is to start them in a frying pan over a high heat and sweat them for around 15 minutes uncovered, adding other ingredients towards the end of the process. Liquid is exuded and reduced down, but the mushrooms don’t really fry.

A nice one-pan way to take advantage of this juice-exuding tendency is to stir in some dehydrated mushroom powder, and/or seaweed powder to thicken the juices. Then crack some eggs into the pan, over the mushrooms, and put a lid over them and turn the heat down. The eggs will poach and steam in the mushroom juices. This is best eaten straight from the pan so the yolks break and trickle through the mushrooms. I serve “Forager’s Eggs” like this on private fungi forays where there are just close friends and family in attendance!

Forager’s Eggs

A “cheffier” method of cooking chanterelles (I learned this from Andrew Fairlie on a foray we did up in Perthshire), is to cook them on a medium heat until the juices are exuded, then drain off this juice (keep it – it is the most amazing amber-coloured mushroom stock, or can be reduced down to make a glaze) and transfer the mushrooms to a very hot frying pan and sear them to your liking. This isn’t very practical at a wild, one-pan cook-in, but is a nice way of cooking them at home.

Chanterelles are improved by prolonged cooking

Chanterelle and spring onion tart ready for the oven

Chanterelles

Chanterelles with summer herbs

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3 Comments

  • Luigi says:

    Might be worth adding that the chanterelle can sometimes be confused with omphalotus olearius, also known as the “jack-o-lantern” mushroom, which is poisonous. It occurs usually beneath oak and has been spotted on the British Isles, although only catalogued in the south-east. Very unlikely to be found in Scotland, but possible.

  • Udo van den Brock says:

    Just to add that jack-o-lantern grows on wood, not on soil.

    • Jeremy Gray says:

      However, if growing on wood under the ground, like roots or buried branches/stumps it can appear to be growing out of the ground. Also, the gills are bioluminescent…

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