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 http://www.rogersmushrooms.com/) 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!