What do you see here?
It’s like Where’s Wally for grown ups, right? It’s January and we’re among beech trees, hunting for winter chanterelles, whose dull grey-brown caps are perfectly camouflaged against the dead leaves. These mushrooms grow in huge numbers but, their caps are so unassuming that you can walk straight past them, even if you’re looking for them.
But when you do spot a winter chanterelle and harvest it, the appearance is dazzling. The stem, usually hidden in deep leaf litter, is bright yellow-gold and the underside of the cap is covered with a beautifully intricate network of ridges.
This is an extreme example of what makes foraging so addictive: the thrill of seeing mushrooms appear before your eyes from a patch of ground that seemed empty. It can feel as though you are magically conjuring them into existence with the force of your own concentration.
Once you’ve located one mushroom, the others start to emerge; your eyes attune to the exact shade and shape of the caps and, often, you find yourself surrounded. These shrooms can be gathered in huge numbers, which is very useful at this time of year, when most other fungi has been frosted out of existence. So we filled our baskets. Several times:
How to capitalise on this treasure-trove of fungus? We’re about to launch our spring menu, and have been talking about serving some kind of mushroom pie. Winter chanterelles have an incredibly potent and distinctive flavour – like smokey black peppercorns – which would add a meaty robustness to our mushroom mix. So we started cooking.
The winter chanterelles weren’t in short supply that day, but they won’t keep growing throughout winter and spring, so using them fresh in our mushroom pie isn’t an option. We have to find a way to preserve them. Our solution was to make a base filling for the pies – a simple mix of garlic, onion, celery and herbs – in bulk, add the mushrooms and lashings of cream and white wine, and freeze it. Winter chanterelles hold their texture remarkably well if cooked and frozen, so we will be able to use this as a starting point for our pies throughout the spring season. But it won’t be a simple case of defrosting the mix and slapping it in a pie pan – we’ll be adding more wild food to the pies, including foraged spring greens like hogweed stems, to make a rich, creamy, fresh and satisfying filling. Plus we’re adding a secret ingredient – Douglas fir. Not only does the zesty orange-y tang of douglas fir needles contribute a lovely citrus-pine aroma to the mix, but it makes symbolic sense too – winter chanterelles often grow in tandem with douglas fir trees, so the two make a natural pair.
The new menu launches on the 1st February, but here’s a sneak preview, complete with golden brown vegetarian suet pastry top: