As the Samhain festival quickly approaches it is hard to believe we are soon to be shrouded in the darkness of winter. Warm sunny days have been plentiful and welcome this October with blazing autumnal colours to make a walk in the forest the perfect sensual experience to ease us toward the chillier weeks ahead. Earthiness is palpable when we stroll under a canopy of tall trees; our figures seem smaller, we are closer to the ground. Our senses are alerted to the magical, sometimes spooky, environment of the undergrowth. It is no wonder that woodland flora and fauna has inspired the imagination of folk cultures throughout the world providing a landscape for fairies and goblins and all sorts of mischief.
Some fungi specimens like puffballs can be large enough to suggest a small dwelling. Some, like the oyster, have flesh as white as porcelain.
Others, more strangely ,like the Trumpets of Death, are as black as charcoal. All have a unique symbiotic relationship with the living trees they grow under or the dying wood they thrive on. These mushrooms that we see and savour are in fact only the flowering part of a much larger and complex body of a fungus called mycelia. Mushrooms reproduce by spores (not by seeds like plants) which germinate to produce a mass of interwoven cell structures known as hyphae. Masses of hyphae are called mycelium. The mycelium layer is a truly fascinating underground network of thin cells which has been likened to a communication system which connects the growing roots of other plants.
The variety and abundance of mushrooms that are on display at the moment are a thrill for any observer and a treat for the eager forager. We have a mutually beneficial relationship with the many edible wild mushrooms that can be found throughout the months of autumn which should be picked with all the usual caution and respect for their sustainability. Always be sure of what you eat and learn how to identify them with a guidebook relevant to Ireland (many on line guides are American), or better still in the company of a local expert.
Mycology is a fascinating subject and the identification of different species is a skill that won’t be learned overnight. It can however be a rewarding and tasty hobby to make the onset of winter less dreary and all the more pertinent because mushrooms contain vitamin D which is rarely found in plants. Once you can confidently recognise what you are looking at it will encourage you to explore further and lessen the risk of any fatality. Get to know the vital details which are necessary to distinguish the common edible species if you are foraging in the wild. As a beginner surfing the web for facts about fungi it can sometimes be quite baffling to glance headings such as ‘ Trumpets of Death; Recipes’ or figure out the conundrum….chanterelles have false gills and false chanterelles have true gills.
Chanterelles (the real ones) are one of the tastiest wild mushrooms that can be found and the winter chanterelle (below) is quite plentiful at the moment, though they are not as obvious to the eye as some photographs would suggest. Looking down on them, they are incredibly well camouflaged.
They have a much darker, browner colour from this angle but underneath their characteristic yellowish stem and funnel shaped cap are more distinctive. An experienced forager might qualify a chanterelle by its fruity aroma, often likened to apricot.
It is the waft of chanterelles cooking that will eventually draw your attention to their earthy goodness. They have a very tempting aroma and a typical ‘meatiness’ that nominates them for a broad selection of delicious classics.
Add the trimmed and cleaned mushrooms to a dry hot pan and wait until they begin to release their juices. Gently stir them until the liquid has evaporated and then add enough butter and/or olive oil to continue sautéing for another few minutes. Use this base of sautéed fresh wild mushrooms as the main character of a risotto, soup or omelette. Combine with leeks and diced celeriac to fill a luscious pie. Mix with fresh thyme, rosemary or sage to create a versatile breadcrumb stuffing. Combine with discs of mozzarella and dried oregano to top a pizza. Simplest of all, splash with some balsamic or wine vinegar as they saute and enjoy on a slice of toast.
Whatever your preference for mushrooms is, wild or cultivated, do try to get out and into the forest at this time of year. There is a living underworld to entrance or spook, depending on your imagination.