Tag Archives: foraging

Chicken-of-the-Woods

I have written a few posts on foraging and natural history in Britain, here’s a little post about a lovely edible mushroom:

As I was walking in Lyme Park at the weekend I kept an eye out for edible goodies. Lyme Park is great for oyster mushrooms because of the large number of beech trees in the forests there. However, I did not expect to find a splendid chicken-of-the woods growing on a dead tree trunk just off the path to the children’s play area! Goodness knows how many had walked past it unaware of the delicious treat..

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Although I am by no means an expert, I recognised it straight away – a large bracket fungus with multiple brackets with a beautiful and almost garish orange and sulphur-yellow coloration. In fact, another name for it is the sulphur polypore (the polypore part is because it doesn’t have gills on its underside like a typical fungus, but many tiny pores). There really is nothing else like it, so you can be pretty certain of what it is.

However, before I go on: always confirm you have correctly identified the fungus and check more than one field guide. The two I use are the River Cottage Handbook No.1: Mushrooms, for quick reference and the Collins Fungi Guide for more detailed descriptions. If you are not 100% sure of what you are picking, don’t pick it!

As with all fungi there is a certain amount of variation – there can be many brackets or a few, they can be a range of widths from a few inches to a couple of feet, the brackets can be neat and flat, or can look as though they’ve poured out and frozen, like orange lava, in a Dali-esque manner. The one I found had grown around blades of grass, trapping them like flies on amber. I didn’t take it all because I thought I’d see if the intact part would grow back – if I’m lucky I might be able to collect a regular ‘crop’ over the next few months!

Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo in situ because my phone has run out of batteries, but here’s a few pictures I have found in books and on the ‘net that shows off this variation:

2013-08-08 21.47.13   chicken wood tallchicken woods flatchicken woods tall

From (in order) John Wright, First Nature, Cornell University, Malcolm Storey

Chicken-of-the-woods, or to give its scientific name Laetiporus sulphurous, is only found on trees, and the trees can be living or dead. It is usually found in the Summer and Autumn, and occasionally in Winter if it is a mild one. It grows most commonly upon oak and also yew, cedar, cherry wood, sweet chestnut, and willow. It is worth pointing out that all Laetiporus species are edible except if found growing on poisonous trees such as yew and cedar.

Whilst on the subject of edibility, I should also mention that Laetiporus sulphurous is only edible when cooked.

Cooking with Chicken-of-the-Woods

This fungus is called chicken-of-the-woods because it’s firm flesh is pale and fibrous but tender, like chicken breast. For that reason it makes an excellent meat substitute for vegetarians. What a coincidence it is that I have a friend visiting me who is vegetarian; we could put the chickeniness to the test.

I did hope it was good because the chicken-of-the-woods I found was pretty big, weighing in at 2 kilograms and bigger than my head! It therefore would keep me and my visiting friend Stuart in meals for most of the week.

Preparing it is simple. Separate the brackets from each other and trim away and tough woody bits then rinse it under the tap briefly to get rid of any soil and creepy-crawlies, then slice it reasonably thinly. Then it is just a question of integrating it into a recipe. As you slice, you’ll notice that the flesh is rather dry, so when frying it you should add a little water so that it can absorb it and become more typically mushroomy in texture.

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Its firm flesh is tender and yielding and definitely has a truffle aroma and flavour when cooked – there’s a lot of umami going on in that mushroom! It’s definitely the tastiest wild mushroom I have found thus far. We couldn’t understand why it hasn’t been cultivated as food because it was so substantial and satisfying, and better than any TVP, Quorn or other mock meats. Maybe I’ve found a gap in the market…

Here’s what I made with it:

One third was turned in simple mushrooms on toast  – a recipe can be found for that here – the only changes I made was to add a little water after a few minutes’ sautéing, and to omit the cream/milk. Whenever you try a mushroom the first time, this is the thing to cook for it shows it off in all its glory! It fed 4.

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The second third was used in a stir fry with the typical stir-fry veg, soy, (vegetarian) oyster sauce and, again, some water. This really showed off its meaty qualities. Excellent. This fed 2.

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The last third was a spinach and chicken-of-the-woods lasagne. I made a simple béchamel sauce flavoured with Lancashire cheese, black pepper and nutmeg, then sautéed the mushrooms in olive oil, added some water and steamed the spinach on top of the mushrooms. Everything was layered up in the usual way, finished with some Parmesan and breadcrumbs and baked. This fed 4….

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Now it is all used up, and we didn’t even get bored of it. I do hope another grows back on that tree trunk…

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On a Mushroom Hunt

The British crops have been failing left, right and centre because of the all the warm and very, very wet weather we have had over this growing year. The fields and orchards have been chock full of mouldy, diseased-ridden peas, beans, apples, plums and pears. It’s been a great year for mould.

Mould is caused by fungi and luckily, this year has also been great for the fungi we like to eat: the mushrooms, so as long as they are doing well, we shall always have a good meal.

Tricholoma scalpuratum or yellowing knight

I am pretty new to mushroom hunting, but there are a few species that I already know and love, but faced with 120 000 species worldwide, of which 1841 are recognised as edible (though not necessarily by all). Luckily, I have a background in ecology and evolutionary biology and so I’m okay at identifying and classifying. However, the obvious problem here is that being okay is not good enough when it comes to mushrooms, as you may be rushing down to A & E with the family in an ambulance clutching your Collins Fungi Guide in your clammy palms.

Shaggy ink cap

Mushrooms have been held in high regard throughout history because, except for a few European species, they cannot be cultivated in any consistent way. There is no evidence that prehistoric man ate mushrooms, but they were certainly enjoyed in Ancient Egypt and Rome, indeed the Romans were the first to cultivate them. This art seemed to die out with them and it wasn’t resurrected until Victorian times. It’s strange to think that mushrooms were such an expensive ingredient that often had to be exchanged for oysters in many dishes. How times have changed.

Because mushrooms are notorious for their often narcotic and poisonous qualities, there were considered magic during the Middle Ages. Many an alchemist pored over the life cycle of fungi in an attempt to discover the secret of life itself – mushrooms had the amazing ability to create life from decay.

I could go through all the edible species of mushroom in Britain, but that would be rather boring so instead I thought I’d mention the ones I have found so far in this post and then add to it in further posts whenever I come across them.

Identifying Mushrooms

As I said, I am certainly no expert in fungus ID, but it is for this very reason that I take appropriate precautions.

First of all you need at least two good fungus guides: there is such variation within single species that there can be a lot of overlap between them and therefore potential misidentification. More than one book covers more variation. I think it is best to have one book with drawings and one with photographs. The two I use are the Collins Fungi Guide – which is very in-depth – and River Cottage Handbook No. 1: Mushrooms – which is much briefer but is full of hints and tips.

Aside from the mushroom you are interested in, you need to look for other things: are they single or in clumps, or even patterns? Where are they? Fields or woods? If they are in woods, are they on trees, if you what kind? Therefore it is very important that you know some of the trees: the main players are oak, beech and birch, so make sure you know them, or take along a tree guide with you too.

If I am not really sure at all, I take a photo of them where I found them and pick them with their bases intact so I can classify them later when I have time.

Jew’s ear or jelly fungus grows almost exclusively on elder

Do not be tempted to take any advice from old wives’ tales as they are almost always wrong. However, most poisonous species have three features that are worth bearing in mind: scales beneath the cap, a ring and a small sac at the stem’s base. Not all will have all three qualities, so not take this advice as read either. The important thing to remember is that if you are not completely sure, don’t eat it!

Over the last week or so I have come across shaggy inkcap, shaggy parasol, wood mushrooms, the rather anti-Semitically named Jew’s ear fungus and a huge host of , commonly called yellowing knight (though the one’s I found were not particularly yellow).

Two mushroom recipes

I cooked several dishes with our mushroom crop, but I shall just report two here.

Creamed mushrooms on toast

Simple, fast and will show off your mushrooms to their finest. It’s not for dieters.

Ingredients (per person)

1 double-handful of wild mushrooms

2 ounces of salted butter

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 tsp of chopped thyme leaves

salt and pepper

5 or 6 tbs double cream

freshly-grated nutmeg

one thick slice of hot buttered toast

Pick over the mushrooms, wiping away any soil with a damp cloth. Melt the butter in a frying pan and when it stops sizzling add the garlic and thyme and fry until the garlic is soft. Tip in the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Stir and fry until the mushrooms given up then evaporated their juice. Add the cream and stir, adding a little nutmeg. Serve immediately on toast. Poached egg is optional.

Dried Mushrooms

When you have a glut of mushrooms, it’s a good idea to preserve them in some way. This is a recipe from Elizabeth Raffauld’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper that turns mushrooms into a delicious, rich and dark seasoning. I’ll leave it to her to tell you how to make it (I have added the odd note in parentheses).

Mushrooms before drying

“Take the thickest large buttons you can get, peel them, cut off the root end but don’t wash them. Spread them separately on pewter dishes [or on baking trays] and set them in a slow oven to dry [around 60-70⁰C]. Let the liquor dry up into the mushrooms, it makes the powder stronger, and then continue in the oven till you find they will powder [they will snap easily].

Mushrooms after drying

Then beat them in a marble mortar [or a blender] and sift them through a fine sieve with a little Chyan [Cayenne] pepper and pounded mace. Bottle it and keep it in a dry closet.”

Mushrooms powdered

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The Edible Hedgerow

I went a little foraging escapade last week to see what wild food I could find in Chorlton Meadows, one of my favourite places in Manchester. The hunter-gatherer is not quite dead. Today’s aim was to find some fruit for some nice hedgerow jelly; something you don’t find in the shops, no siree. I wonder how many people do this anymore? It’s shocking that there are tiny punnets of blackberries in the supermarket selling for 3 or 4 pounds when you can get them free from the brambles!

The first thing you need to find if you want to make a good hedgerow jelly is some crab apples. There’s an area of the meadows called Hardy’s Farm and I knew that there was plenty of apple trees around there so I headed straight for it. The poor summer we’ve had – very wet and warm – has been the perfect environment for moulds and other fungi, they had managed to infect every tree I came across except for one! Some trees didn’t even have fruit or flowers on them. A sad, sad state of affairs. It is a little early for apples though, so perhaps they’ll get their act together.

Some of the few crab apples that weren’t diseased

Crab apples, or any windfall apples really, make up 50 percent of the jelly because apples provide the pectin that sets jelly once it is cooked.

The great thing about these jellies is that you can use berries that are normally far too sour and astringent in their unsweetened form. I found several species though many of them were not quite ripe.

The rowans were laden with berries

Two of the best examples of this were the two most bountiful species: hawthorn and rowan. These are very common trees found in hedgerows, forests, scrubland and gardens.

The brilliant red berries seemed to glow against the rather miserable grey backdrop of the rain and clouds – especially the rowanberries. If you look closely at them, you can see that they are just tiny apples themselves.

Rowanberries are simply tiny apples!

(to be botanically correct: apples are just large berries)

There was also a few ripe rosehips, so I grabbed some of those too. The other species I found were no way near ripe enough or in high enough numbers: sloes (the wild ancestor to damsons), blackberries, elderberries and some wild plums.

Some rather unripe blackberries and hips

Hedgerow Jelly

Once you have collected your fruit you can now get making your jelly – and don’t worry if crab apples are the only thing you found because they make a delicious pink-tinged tart jelly themselves. (Notice that I have suddenly gone metric, there’s a reason for this, but that’ll have to wait for another post. I shall endeavour to add Imperial measures though.)

1 kg (2 lbs) crab apples

1 kg (2 lbs) wild berries

1.2 litres (2 pints) water

granulated sugar

Wash your fruit – you don’t want hedgerow and earwig jelly. Roughly chop your apples; don’t core or peel them, it is the core and peel that contain the most of the precious pectin.

As for the berries, I give them a quick blitz in the food processor. Place the fruit in a large heavy-based stock pot. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until the fruit is mushy.

In order to achieve a nice clear jelly, you need to strain the juice through cloth – I use muslin and a proper jelly stand for this, but it’s perfectly fine to use a large sheet of muslin, cheesecloth or even an old pillowcase. Scald your material in boiling water to sterilise it. Put the jelly bag on its frame with a bowl beneath it to catch the drips. Pour in the mushy fruit and juice and allow it to drip through in its own time overnight. If you don’t have a jelly bag, you can tie a bundle of cloth to the handle of a cupboard above a bowl.

The next day, measure how much juice you have – it should be between 1 and 1.2 litres – and pour it into your stockpot or preserving pan (I am saving up for one of those). For every 600 ml (1 UK pint) of juice you have, you’ll need 450 g (1 pound) of sugar. Add this to the pan and turn on the heat to medium, stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar is completely dissolved, then turn the heat to maximum. Boil the fruity syrup until setting point is reached: this is easy to judge if you have a thermometer, because pectin sets at 104.5⁰C.This should take about 10 or 15 minutes. If you don’t have one then, turn the heat off and place a drop of the jelly on a freezing-cold plate. Let it set, then push it with your nail. If it wrinkles, then it is ready. If it doesn’t, put the heat on again for 10 minutes and try again.

Once setting point is reached, skim away the skum and pour into sterilised jars. The way I do this is I put the jars and lids on a clean baking tray in the oven for 30 minutes at 120⁰C.

Variation: Mulled cider jelly. Use 2 kg of crab apples, and add a 500 ml bottle of dry or sweet cider along with 700 ml of water, along with a cinnamon stick, some cloves, a star anise and a piece of nutmeg. When it comes to the point where you add the sugar, use 100 g less as the cider lends a lot of sweetness itself.

Mulled cider jelly

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