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.
Idris – not a truffle hound
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.
Cauliflower fungus – Sparassis crispa
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.
Cauliflower fungus and sorrel
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.
Fried fungus and sorrel
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.