Mushrooms for Nybörjare: Part One, Le Chanterelle

First, a word about “nybörjare.” Literally translated, it means “new beginner,” although the online dictionary I use softens it to “beginner” or “novice.” One thing I like about this word understood literally is that it really goes the distance to rub your inexperience in your face. You’re not just a beginner. You’re a NEW beginner. Take THAT!

Now onto the mushrooms.

The colours which fungi exhibit include almost every hue from white to black. We have the brilliant red of the Peziza cups; the orange-scarlet of the Amanita muscarius, with its cap gaily speckled with white; the crimson of the Russula emetica; the rich yellow of the Cantharellus cibarius; the blue of the bruised Boletus luridus; the amethyst of the Agaricus laccatus; and the dark green of the bruised Lactarius deliciosus, with every possible shade to the deepest jet.

- “The Value of Attractive Characters to Fungi,” Charles R. Straton, 6 Nov.1890

As you can see, people can get kind of worked up about their mushrooms. And even though the venerable Charles R. Straton wrote those glowing lines in 1890, mushroom fever is alive and well. Seriously.

The Swedes are serious about their mushrooms

There are a few things that I’ve learned about mushroom picking traditions in Sweden since last weekend, and the main conclusion that I’ve come to is that Swedish people are waaaaay more in touch with their hunter-gatherer selves than Americans are. I mean, a bunch of Swedes took me into the woods and taught me how to FORAGE in the woods for EDIBLE FUNGI. Who does that??

Real Live Swedes with Real Live Mushrooms!!

I’m happy to admit my nybörjare status when it comes to picking mushrooms and leave the big decisions to the experts. (Ätlig eller oätlig? Edible or non-edible? Please God, just let me live!) Thankfully, Anna, the unofficial leader of our mushroom expeditions, gave me a few guidelines. ONE, only look for Chanterelles (Kantereller), and TWO, bring all picked mushrooms to Anna.  It was a good system. No one died.

Swedish people and their mushrooms

Here are a few things that seem to be true, although admittedly I am not an expert in Swedish culture. I’m in the Skåne, the southernmost state in Sweden, and the mushrooms are different here than they are in the North. (No comment on the people.)

  1. Swedish families that are into mushroom picking have their own special spots that they return to year after year to find their favorite mushrooms. These spots are secret. They would tell you where they are, but then they’d have to kill you, and Swedish people seem pretty averse to violence even though the threat o jail time seems fairly minimal in comparison to that of the United States.
  2. People are loyal to the kind of mushrooms they were raised to appreciate. In our case, there was definitely an overwhelming preference for Chanterelles. However, I have heard stories of families who actually go out in the woods and pick poisonous mushrooms to eat. Then they go through this laborious process of boiling them, throwing out the water, boiling them, throwing out the water, etc. etc. etc. until they’re not really toxic anymore. Then they take the fruit of their labors and turn it into soup. Chanterelles are our thing, poison is their thing; that’s how it works.
  3. Everyone can go mushroom picking anywhere, anytime, thanks to the Swedish tradition of allemansrätten, or “the right to public access.” This is a big deal in Sweden, and Swedish people really like to talk about it. As explains, “ The Right of Public Access allows the public to roam the woods as long as it is done without disturbing or destroying.” They quote Mathias Dahlgren, a Swedish chef specializing in local and seasonal ingredients as saying, “The Right of Public Access is something unique to Sweden. There’s an enormous amount of resources in the Swedish forests, and it’s all free — everything from mushrooms to berries.”

Blueberries and chanterelle mushrooms straight from the Swedish forests. Mine, all mine.

Chanterelle, Chanterelle, where fort art thou Chanterelle?

Individual preferences aside, Chanterelles seem to be pretty well-accepted as cream of the mushroom crop, and if you have been in Sweden for any amount of time, you will probably find a favorite mode of preparation, AMONG WHICH MAY BE…

  • Sautéed Chanterelles in butter, eaten on toasted bread, buttered;
  • Sautéed Chanterelles in butter, then cooked in cream, then served as a sauce or as an accompaniment to beef or pork, probably with one or more root vegetables on the side; or
  • Sautéed Chanterelles in bacon fat with bacon, then cooked in cream and served over pasta or hot buns.

I’m sure there’s a reason why the Swedes are all so skinny, but the dishes featuring Chanterelles are definitely not it.

Chanterelle infatuation is a global phenomenon, and the more I read about them, the more dizzying I found the descriptions about them. For example, Louise Freedman of the Mycological Society of San Francisco writes, “Chanterelles seem to be worth their weight in gold. They are golden looking, golden tasting, and golden priced,” with “a magical appeal for most culinary experts in Europe, United States, and Asia.” Allison Werner, journalist and blogger, writes, “Chanterelle mushrooms, those yellow, gorgeous and tasty fungi, are one of the free spirits of the mushroom world.”

Even more exciting are the accounts you’ll find in scientific magazines, which accuse these “free spirits” of “vegetal vampirism.”  No joke. I don’t really understand what vegetal vampirism is or how the delicious chanterelle might be guilty of such a terrible yet undeniably catchy-sounding crime, but I am not making this up. In an article titled “Vegetal vampires stalk South America,” Henry Gee cites “ectomycorrhizae, the small group of fungi that produce DISTINCTIVE FRUITING BODIES including truffles and CHANTERELLES,” as a well-known group of VEGETAL VAMPIRES.  Say whaaaa??!??

Could it be true? Is this mushroom a vampire?? SAY IT ISN'T SO!!!

My world has been rocked. Rocked by the mushroom.

kate reuterswärd
craves Mexican food on the regular.