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Ester Gaya
27 September 2013
Kew's IncrEdibles festival features giant sculptures of some of the UK's most interesting fungi. Kew mycologist Ester Gaya tells us more about one of them, the amazing Chanterelle fungus (Cantharellus cibarius)

Mushroom-hunting season is here!

As leaves start changing colour, the days get shorter, some people get grumpier in the cooler weather, but I can’t stop thinking of the delicacies that will be proliferating throughought the Gardens and further into the woods. The mixture of a warm summer and the autumn rain has provided the right conditions for a potentially splendid mushroom season this year.

The Chanterelle, golden chanterelle, girolle, or, scientifically, Cantharellus cibarius is among my favorite edible mushrooms! In fact, the scientific name already tells Latin-speakers something about the chanterelle. Cantharellus derives from the Latin word 'cantharus' meaning a large drinking vessel, a bowl, or chalice. The specific epithet cibarius comes from the Latin 'cibus' meaning food (or rations).

This mushroom is very easy to spot if you look in the right kinds of places, even for the non-expert fungus foragers. Getting to be competent at identifying them is not at all difficult. Chanterelles are usually yellow, orange or with a striking egg yolk colour. They are funnel-shaped, and on the underside of their curly caps, they have wrinkles/ridges rather than gills that run almost all the way down to the stipe (foot). If you press those ridges against a paper you will print its spores and will see they are pale yellow. Their taste is mild at first, but it can turn slightly peppery. Chanterelles are a very fragrant species, well known for their fruity, apricot-like smell, best detected if you are lucky and have several of them together in your collection basket.


Photo of Cantharellus cibarius

Close-up of Cantharellus cibarius (Photo: Malcolm Storey)

As with many mushrooms, most of the chanterelle organism lives underground. What we eat is just the fruit. The rest of the chanterelle forms a network underground, where it establishes a mutualistic association with the roots of trees (mycorrhiza): the fungus helps the tree by providing it with minerals from the soil, while receiving nutrients from the tree as "payment." Thus, both the tree and the fungus benefit from this relationship.

Chanterelles are not very fussy about which trees they associate with, from conifers like pines to broad-leafed trees like beech or oak. Perhaps because of this, they appear in many countries all over the world, from June to October. In Britain, these summer gourmet mushrooms are usually over by the end of September (so better hurry up - or just travel to Southern Europe!).

Among the most desirable of edible mushrooms

Chanterelles can be used for dyeing wool, fabrics, or paper. They are a source of potassium and vitamin D, and a considerable amount of vitamin C. But, of course, most people look for more aesthetic/gustatory reasons. Their wonderful aroma has made many chefs consider them one of the gourmet fungi, and they have been eaten since the Middle Ages. Moreover, they are easy to conserve dry or in vinegar, and some chefs even claim that reconstituted chanterelle have a better flavour than fresh ones. Dried chanterelles can be crushed into flour and used in seasoning in soups or sauces.


Photo of Cantharellus cibarius

Cantharellus cibarius (Photo: Malcolm Storey)

The flavour of chanterelles come from a range of aromatic compounds and, since most of these are fat-soluble, they are particularly good mushrooms to pan fry in butter, oil or cream. They can also be cooked with wine or other alcohols since they also contain small amounts of water- and alcohol-soluble flavourings.

With its long culinary history, there are many ways to cook chanterelles. You can add it to your risotto dishes and omelettes, make tasty soups or sauces (e. g., Alfredo, béchamel) to be served with chicken or fish dishes. But also with pork, vegetables, pasta, potatoes, nuts, and anything you can imagine. Avoid mixing them with strongly flavoured foods though, or you will waste the subtler delights of your chanterelles. You can also make chanterelle-flavored vinegar or oil. In France, a very aromatic liquor (liquer de girolle) is prepared with macerated chanterelles in alcohol. Some people even make a chanterelle sorbet as a dessert!

But for me, the best wild mushroom recipes are the simplest ones. Anything too complex and you risk losing the taste, smell, look and even texture. My own favourite chanterelle recipe:

  • sauté a few chopped green onions and crushed garlic with parsley
  • add your chanterelles, eggs and
  • voilà! The best scrambled eggs ever.

Don’t confuse it with...

... The false chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca), which has a similar appearance, but it is more orange-brown and graded, with darker centre, and true gills.

It is not hazardous, but not especially tasty and can give you some mild gastrointestinal distress. The jack-o'-lantern mushrooms (poisonous species in the genus Omphalotus) have been misidentified as chanterelles but can usually be distinguished by their well-developed, not forked true gills and yellow-orange interior flesh (chanterelles have forked ridges and a white interior). In addition, Omphalotus grows directly on wood, not on the ground!


Tom Hare's sculpture of a chanterelle (Photo: Max Warren)

Please do not pick fungi - leave them to disperse their spores and be appreciated by others. Never pick and eat fungi from the wild unless you are absolutely certain of their identity.

- Ester -


See Tom Hare's chanterelle sculpture at Kew's IncrEdibles festival

Monday 2 September - Sunday 3 November 2013

FREE entry for children aged 16 and under.

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