The wild larder is not completely bare at this time of year, whilst Mother Nature begins to tease us with the appearance of the first snowdrops and the sprouting of daffodils; spring is still a long way off. But do not despair, she has spared us a few treats from the hedgerow to munch on: Sorrel, Bittercress and chickweed seem to be abundant along with two members of the fungal family: Oyster mushrooms and Jew’s ears.
We find ourselves in a sad little world indeed, when a mushroom has to have a preferential name to avoid anti-Semitism. For some time whilst teaching foraging I couldn’t decide what to introduce this tasty fungi as. Its pseudonym of ‘Jelly Ear’ is all well and good in descriptive terms- it certainly does look like an ear, lobes cartilage the lot, but in a historical context the non-PC version is preferential.
The Latin name Auricularia auricula-judae hints to its past, eventually adapted from ‘Judas Ear’ to ‘Jew’s Ear’ it was so named under the belief that Judas Iscariot hung himself on an elder tree, the principle host on which you will almost always find this fungi growing, others include beech and sycamore infrequently.
The Jew’s ear is not a difficult one to find, as mentioned, Elder trees are the place to look. They often grow on dead parts of the tree devoid of bark, either in a cluster or in a row. When picking, simply take a knife and cut the fungi off as close to the base as possible. There are a number of reasons why this fungi is worth picking more often:
- They are unusually frost-resistant and can be found all year round.
- Even when dried and shriveled up in the heat of summer, they are still fine to use: they just need reconstituting in hot water for 10 minutes.
- They are incredibly common and grow in large numbers.
- In cooking terms they are very much a neutral ingredient- they do impart some flavour, but have an interesting habit of taking on the flavours of other ingredients.
Here in the West, this fungi has had little recognition often described as ‘chewing on an India Rubber’, the age-old texture issue strikes again. In the far-east Jew’s ears are a popular addition to many soups and stews, they are either added dried and in powder form to help flavour and thicken, or cut into strips and added fresh.
In China the medicinal properties of the Jew’s ear has been recognized for centuries: They are believed to be an excellent remedy for colds and flu by lowering the body’s temperature. In Ghana it is used as a blood tonic and in the UK folk medicine cabinet of the past it has been used to treat everything from jaundice to sore throats. The health benefits are phenomenal: click here to see a complete breakdown of exactly what the Jew’s ear contains and what it is good for.
Right, back to the cooking.
The texture can be an issue if you are not a huge fan of slightly gelatinous foodstuffs, when used fresh it needs 30-40 minutes of cooking before it is ready for consumption, anything less and you can find yourself in rubber territory. To use fresh, give them a good wash to remove any woodland and wildlife, cut into thin strips and add to a soup or stew- I would err on the side of caution if you decide to fry them whole as they may well blow up in your face! Trust me…
For those of you who don’t like seaweed, squid or tripe because of the texture go for the dried powdered option: just string them together with a needle and thread and hang somewhere warm or stick them in a low oven over night.
When putting together a recipe for Jew’s ears, I decided pay heed to both its popularity and medicinal uses. A warming broth of the oriental variety: possibly capable of keeping the winter ills at bay, definitely capable of providing a tasty lunch.
This broth is designed to be good for the immune system: whilst creating a warming feeling within from the gentle heat of ginger, it also has added boost of a healthy dose of vitamin C from the lemon juice and a pleasant burst of citrus from the sorrel leaves. An excellent starter for a foraged dinner party!
100g Jew’s Ear fungus
A thumb-size piece of ginger (chopped into thin slivers)
500ml of water
1 Beef stock cube
1 TBSP Soy Sauce
2 TBSP rice wine vinegar (or cider vinegar)
1tsp of sugar
Juice of half a lemon
Handful of Sorrel leaves
First, Wash the fungi and slice into thin strips. Bring the water to the boil and add the stock cube, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, ginger and finally the Jew’s ears.
Simmer gently for 30 minutes. Before serving add the juice from the lemon, give the broth a good stir and dish up. Sprinkle a handful of sorrel leaves over the top and consume.
On another note, I did my first post for the Guardian by word of mouth blog about eating more of our lesser known freshwater fish…cue shit storm from angry anglers, which simmered gently before turning into a race row about Eastern European fishing ‘gangs’ and the legality catching and cooking them (the fish, not the Eastern Europeans). Other than highlight the fact that perhaps I should have been a touch more impartial and left my views at the sideline, it did make me think that England is on the right track to becoming a very disappointing place! To have a read and see for yourself click here.