It’s been a long time; I have been searching high and low-nowt! But for all the searching I have done, all it took was to be sitting in the front seat of a car, feeling a little delicate from a few ales the night before that I suddenly saw it- spewing forth from the cleft of an incredible old oak tree, the whisky tinted fronds of the chicken. The fact that I was driving through the outskirts of Burgess Hill in Sussex surprised me, the chicken of the woods is indeed as much of a townie as the morel has become, after all why not?
I have read all sorts about this fascinating fungus, but never had the chance to taste it, its not likely to grace the supermarket aisle and may just sit amongst a few of its better known cousins at farmers markets. The best way to taste is to find. The chicken of the woods is actually quite an evil fungus, the bright orange and yellow beast will not yield once its spores are inside the skin of it’s favoured host; the oak, and will eventually see the tree off. That’s why of all the fungal finds to prise the chicken off its perch is both gratifying and makes you feel you could be doing the tree a favour.
I have never been one for mushroom picking- dangerous business. As I have got older the priorities have changed, gone are the days of windswept October walks across open fields in search of the Psilocybe semilanceata (that’s magic mushrooms to you and me) for these are the days of mushrooms which hold more culinary potential. They say the best things in life are free and I am completely in agreement, the best food is wild and If you know what your doing they are readily available.
The chicken of the woods is a bit of a lottery according to most guide books and reports, to quote John Wright (The River cottage mushroom handbook) “ There are many credible reports of it causing dizziness, hallucinations and gastro-intestinal problems in a relatively small percentage of those who eat it’”. To quote Michael Beug; “Causes mild reactions in some, for example, swollen lips or in rare cases nausea, vomiting, dizziness and disorientation. This is believed to be due to a number of factors that range from very bad allergies to the mushroom's protein, to toxins absorbed by the mushroom from the wood it grows on such as Yew, Cedar and Eucalyptus.” So there you have it, easy to identify, but you never know if you might be part of that small percentage…so here are a few tips to minimize any risk:
· Only take the edges of the bracket where the flesh is softer and discard any hard, chalky parts found closer to the surface of the tree.
· Avoid any growing on Yew trees, stick strictly to broad-leaved trees such as Oak.
· Always cook it! Then try just a small amount and leave it for about 30 minutes to an hour. If you are feeling fine you almost certainly are not part of that small percentage.
So a So a bit of a dodgy fungus but a fine one at that. The first thing I noticed about the chicken as I am sure you will is its pungent aroma of mushrooms, which I was not expecting, but please refrain from scoffing it there and then! The amazing thing about the chicken is the texture, it really is like chicken, one that has been nicely browned on a bbq and basted with a hot sticky marinade of some sort. It is more like a Tofu and can be used as a meat substitute in a variety of different ways. To be honest with you, a find such as this deserves pride of place and should be eaten with the most simplistic of additions. The best way is to fry them up with butter and lemon thyme and give them a good squeeze of lemon juice and a twist of salt & pepper. Delicious.
I can recommend no better a mushroom that is as versatile as this one; few can be used in the same way. The other good thing is that when you find one, there is a huge amount of flesh, take it and remember where you found it. So next time your out and about, keep your eyes peeled be it in the woods or the suburbs, goodness is all around, sometimes you don’t always have to search to find what you are after, but quite often it helps!