I’d always hoped my little lurcher Idris would develop into a truffle-hound – a treasure-hunting dog that earns his keep by sniffing out extraordinarily valuable mushrooms. Alas like my bank account he has shown zero interest.
This week though he has been an accessory to finding edible wild fungi. I took him for a walk through the September woods and we remarked to each other on the profusion of fungal fruits. Well, he listened patiently. Most of the mushrooms I found were a mystery – intriguing but very tricky to identify even with a book open. Idris got bored and disappeared hunting squirrel shadows in the enveloping conifer plantation.
After about 5 minutes, I started to worry that he’d actually caught something – it was very quiet. So I plunged up the dark slope under the Douglas firs and western hemlocks. Soon I saw the ghostly white drifting drifting far above among the ranks of trees, chasing smells. But I was instantly distracted by what looked like a 19th-century diagram of a brain, glowing out of the base of a huge Douglas fir.
Some residual memory signalled joy and I boldly identified it as a brain fungus (it wasn’t – no such thing). But many years ago I’d eaten something almost identical to this before at a friend’s house after he’d found it in this sort of site. I bent towards it and was rewarded with a cloud of truffly scent. I scooped about half of it into cupped hands – it was rubbery and frondy like al dente tagliatelle or a kelp-like seaweed.
I bagged it and set off home at quite a lick with Idris’s walk curtailed – this was turning into my first successful wild fungi forage and I felt the need for speed. But my confidence failed once home so I tweeted a picture of my fungal brain to Countryfile Magazine’s 60,000 followers (@countryfilemag).
I looked in books and combination of lack of poisonous look-a-likes and Nature UK’s (@natureuk) gently tweeted wisdom restored my faith. It was a cauliflower fungus Sparassis crispa – edible and tasty. Ninety five per cent sure.
I washed it thoroughly – this is the key cooking instruction on every online recipe for the species. Pine needles, grit and a centipede emerged.
I fried the remains – by now a pile of fragments – in butter with a sprinkling of sorrel. The truffle smell filled the kitchen and I spooned the buttery morass onto a piece of toast.
I am so glad I did – it was quite the most perfect thing since I spent £10 on a lobster roll from Café Mor in Pembrokeshire
The even better news (for me, at least) was that I survived.
I found a second cauliflower fungus the next day and decided to treat it differently – frying it with an onion and garlic and then stirring into a miso-based soup. Alas, the sheer mushroomy joy was lost in the liquid and I felt a pang of error – though it made for an unusual lunch at work the following day when the flavours had developed a bit.
My advice, should you find one of these, is just fry it in butter with pepper and salt.
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