A few days in Sussex is more than enough time to have a poke around the countryside for a few more of Autumn’s finest wild ingredients. Last week was spent not only having a firm fondle of the hedgerows, but taking part in the Woodlore-assistant-intructor-selection process (what a mouthful). So apart from immersing myself in some thoroughly enjoyable bushcrafty goodness with some great people, I was able to spend some time gathering a few bits to take home with me at the end of the week.
When we were told we had to give a 5 minute talk on whatever we wanted, I felt that my best shot would be to talk about something that I was both passionate about (always makes it flow better) and something that the people I was talking to could have a good feel, sniff or nibble of.
I was able to gather allsorts: Sorrel, mint, horseradish, meadowsweet, sweet chestnuts, Japanese knotweed, common puffballs, rosehips, hawthorns and by a pure stroke of luck: a cauliflower fungus.
To be completely honest I was a little skeptical over whether I would find any good edible mushrooms that would help illustrate my philosophy of gathering only the fungi that you cannot mistake for anything else. Obviously this is the best way to start if you’re an amateur and I hoped that some of my fellow happy campers might go home and do a bit of ‘shrooming themselves, if they didn’t already.
On the third day, after a night without sleeping bag or bivi bag (not as bad as you would think!), we had a day of navigation exercises. I was happy to see that our day of walking would be conducted a stone’s throw from where I grew up- Ashdown Forest, would I need the map? Yes. Grid references can be a bitch without one.
During my trek, my attention was firmly fixed to the floor peppered with the odd glance to the clefts of Oak trees for an elusive chicken. A few common puffballs cropped up, some birch polypore (inedible- but good for stropping a knife), Fly agaric (poisonous) and others which I had no clue as to their identity.
I have often found with wild food that the best discoveries are often made by complete accident…sheer dumb luck too, plays a big part. So I felt more jammy than a bag of donuts when I found myself going in completely the wrong direction and happened upon a beautiful creamy-white cauliflower fungus at the foot of a huge Scots’ Pine.
As I had never had the luck to find one before, I began punching the air with joy and may have even done a little dance. It wasn’t the biggest cauliflower, a bit bigger than my fist, it would have been good if it was bigger so I could have dried some for future culinary adventures. Not being one to disregard mother nature giving me a nudge and a wink, in the bag it went for show and tell the following day.
The cauliflower fungus is unmistakable (the French refer to it as ‘the broody hen’ due to its size, shape and colour) it looks more like a brain and I believe it is sometimes referred to as brain fungus. There is a similar looking fungus known as the ‘hen of the woods’, also edible, but sometimes causes stomach upset (a cluster of small brown/grey caps and white underneath) usually found under Beech trees. The Cauliflower (Sparassis crispa) is always found under Pine trees, as a result it requires a gentle wash to remove the fine grains of sandy soil, creepy crawlies and pine needles.
When I back to civilization, I noticed I was off to a friend’s for supper that night. So I thought the cauliflower mixed with a little sorrel would make a good addition to the beef carpaccio I had to make for the starter. The cauliflower has a rich mushroomy/nutty flavour, perfect to accompany 21-day aged raw slivers of beef I had procured from the local butchers.
As I had not eaten it before, I wanted to taste it as bare as possible. The simplest way to prepare them is to slice it into cross sections and pan fry in butter with some chopped sorrel sprinkled in. It really was outstanding and I think everyone else enjoyed it too; rich was one word that rang out around the table. The only problem was perhaps the unfortunate addition of grit, which is never a pleasurable texture, perhaps my cleaning skills need a bit of work.
Other good methods of cooking this wonderful fungus are to make a nice tempura batter, dip in and shallow fry for a minute or two…perfect. They also make a superb addition to stews and hot-pots. Again, versatility is a key factor of this mushroom.
Cauliflowers have a fairly short growing season August to November and are not all that common (as far as I’m concerned anyway). Don’t hesitate to get those boots on and head to a pine wood near you, don’t try to look that hard for them: wander aimlessly and you might be surprised- ignorance can be bliss!