Saturday, September 3, 2016

Cauliflower mushrooms

In the woods above us, on the ridge between the Rhymney and Sirhowy Valleys, I had been exploring for many moons too.

Here, a couple of years ago, I found an example of the extraordinary cauliflower fungus – Sparassis crispa. It was too old to eat – still firm of flesh but a little manky and potentially maggoty.

Helpfully, the cauliflower fungus fruits in the same place year after year. And this year I finally found a fresh one in exactly the same spot.

They’re very easy to identify because there is nothing else quite like it. It was the size of a bath sponge and indeed looked more like the sort of large, natural sponges we’d seen on sale on our Greek island than a mushroom. And it smelled … well, mushroomy (mental note: try and find better ways to describe mushroom smells). So, anyway, I harvested it.

Cleaning the beast wasn’t easy. It is full of holes which make perfect hiding places for little beasties from the forest floor but I resisted the temptation to wash it, as advised in a couple of mushroom guide books.

Instead, I gave it a good shake and dabbed around hopefully with a damp cloth. It was fresh and quite sturdy so didn’t break. I hoped I'd rid it of most of its occupants.

I cut three slices – about half an inch thick – laterally across it with a bread knife. The flesh was quite flexible but almost brittle so it still held its shape apart from a couple of loose pieces that became separated.

Then, I simply fried it gently in some olive oil. There were recipes for it but I wouldn’t to understand exactly what it tasted like, so I just ate it on buttered toast.

Sparassis crispa had a surprisingly mild mushroom flavour and firm texture. Pleasant, but not stunning. The best part of the experience was finding it. I’ve actually found another one in the last few days too, but this specimen was, once more, too old to eat.

The remains of the one I did harvest – about half the fruiting body – have since been dried in a paper bag hanging in our Grecianesque conservatory. I’ll try them in a different recipe later this autumn.

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