Treasures in the Dirt

We started our hunt for mushrooms in December, in the waning days towards the solstice, hopeful that we’d see their bright orange stalks peeping up through the needles as early as we did last year. Mushrooms grow in a confluence of one part humus, one part rain, one part sunshine, and one part mystery–so we weren’t sure ‘til we saw the sunlight hit a patch of them on the ground on the side of the track. There’s a feeling you get when you come into a spot where they’re likely to sprout.

I’ve hunted chantrelles since I was first shown a secret clutch of them in a wilderness area in Colorado (that shall remain, as I was, sworn to secrecy). Every early September I’d return to that special place and sometimes come back with a grocery bag full (the large, old-fashioned, brown-paper kind), and sometimes just a small handful…and, at least once, some other chef beat me to them entirely.

In any case, I thrilled to find them here in Portugal, though they sprout much later in the season: rather a winter variety in this climate, at this elevation. Not only are they my favorite mushrooms–their apricot scent overwhelming when collected into a healthy pile–but the only ones I trust myself to identify without fear. They’re so hard to confuse with anything poisonous, that they make a good beginner’s mushroom for an amateur forager like me.

Granite deposits border where you find the chantrelles in Colorado; these giant rocks lay scattered around amidst the pines, creating mounds of minerals in the piles of needles. Maybe it’s not such a surprise that you find them in similar tilted fields in the coastal hills of Portugal, where the same boulders of granite sit in groups as though tumbled down from some great height. Those rocks felt like old friends, a link from one continent, one home to another.

Patiently, we waited a few weeks for the baby stalks to bloom into their frilly tops–and one day in mid January turned out to be the day we could anticipate our first harvest of the year. We gather only what we can eat in a meal or two (an omelet, a gratin, a quiche; they are so fond of eggs and cream!) under the forager’s code to always leave plenty for others. We take care in plucking them to keep the fertile base in situ (at the end of the stipe, where the mycelium and volve meet), to grow further this year, perhaps, or to ensure next year’s crop. This vital step takes a gentle hand but the payoff multiplies for us. This year I swear there were more than last year. Or maybe each year I get better at seeing them. That feeling returns, grows stronger.

We haven’t met many other foragers about (only a Swedish couple) and no Portuguese so far–though we found our spot under the advice of a local restaurant owner. And perhaps the first dish that we made from the haul isn’t a Portuguese recipe, but the eggs and leeks are as local as you can get–and the dish comes together in the pan like a cross between an omelet from France and a tortilla from Spain…and therefore, feels perfectly correct here on the edge of Europe.

Chantrelles sautéing in the pan

Ovos Com Congumelos Silvestres e Alho Francês

Eggs with Wild Mushrooms and Leeks

Serves 2

4 eggs

2 cups chantrelles or other forest mushrooms, cleaned, large ones halved

1 leek, cleaned and white/light green parts sliced in 1 cm half moons

1 clove garlic, minced

butter, olive oil, salt, and fresh ground pepper

  1. Sauté leeks in a medium skillet or cast iron pan with a knob of butter and a tablespoon of oil, over medium heat until softened, about 7 minutes.
  2. Add mushrooms and minced garlic; sauté until the mushrooms release and then reabsorb their water, another 3-4 minutes.
  3. Crack the eggs into a bowl and whisk to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  4. Pour into the pan over the mushroom mixture, and let cook until set, about 4 minutes.
  5. Serve in the pan with a twist of more ground pepper, and alongside buttered toast.