Foraging Wild Ingredients: Forest Mushrooms
In our Foraging Wild Ingredients blog series, we will be covering some of our favourite wild bounties that we like collecting for gourmet outdoor cooking.
Foraging: The act of collecting and sourcing wild, natural ingredients from natural habitats. Collecting wild edibles is a pleasurable mixture of science and luck. From forests to coasts, there’s a bounty of delicious ingredients on offer throughout the year’s seasons, but you have to be able to know where and when to look, and what to identify to find nature’s palatable rewards. When you’re out hiking or camping, foraging adds a whole new dimension to your time outdoors, and in the same vein, wild edibles will add a whole new element to the flavours of your cooking or can be dried out / turned into preserves to be devoured later.
Forests are a Mycologist's (a scientist of fungi) dream. In forests, microbial mycorrhizal fungi (mushrooms) coexist symbiotically with the roots of plants and trees. They are interesting because they form underground information superhighways amongst root systems, known as the “wood wide web”, which let plants and trees talk to each other. Paul Stament, one of the foremost fungi fanatics and professors, describes fungi as “sentient", meaning that they can sense us walking on the forest floor above them. Fascinating. He even goes as far as to say they could save the planet through treating polluted soil and flu viruses, but that’s another story for another time. Here, we are focusing on fungi as sweet, sweet food! And amongst the over 10,000 species out there, some are simply sublime to the palette.
Throughout Spring, Summer and Autumn, you can find them protruding from the forest floor - some of which are delicious if you can find them, others perhaps not so delicious that could be your last. The first thing to do to find mushrooms is identify the trees they grow alongside, then look around the forest floor or on the tree trunks depending on the type you are looking for. Next, use your sight, touch and smell to figure out if the specimen you find is what you’re looking for (avoid taste until you are sure! And wash your hands thoroughly with sanitiser if you are handling anything that might be poisonous).
If you are heading out, we recommend getting yourself a mushroom knife (with a small brush on one side for cleaning) and taking a small box/basket for collecting them in. You might find mushrooms at the side of established paths, but don’t be afraid to tread off-piste into forests to find them (as long as you can find your way back).
Below are three of our favourite mushrooms to cook up in our Madog Open Fire's. What would you add to the list?
Disclaimer: Be absolutely sure you can identify what you are picking, and beware of look-alikes which may be poisonous, or make you a bit ill. There are plenty of resources online to research. The best way to identify is to get out there and pick, and cross-reference with a book/picture - ideally, if you can get out with someone experienced that’s the best way. Once your eyes are tuned in to the real thing, they become easy to spot and differentiate!
One of the most desirable mushrooms around, the Chanterelle is a distinctively bold, yellow colour with crisscrossing networks of gills on the underside. They look like umbrellas that have been blown inside out by a strong wind. When it comes to cooking, they have a light, fruity, apricot-like aroma and peppery taste. Texture-wise, they are soft and melt-in-your-mouth when cooked. Look for them from June to October amongst Birch or Beech trees, often feeding off sphagnum (moss and accumulated plant material) on the forest floor. Chanterelles can’t be cultivated, which is why they fetch a pretty penny in shops because they have to be hand-picked. Their cousin, the Winter Chanterelle, is slightly less bold in yellow-ness, but grows right through the Winter - even in the Snow!
Watch out for: The False Chanterelle. This species looks similar to the normal Chanterelle but is a bit more orange in colour and slightly colour-graded being darker towards the centre. Additionally, the gills of a false chanterelle is more true and parallel, as opposed to crisscrossed like actual Chanterelles. While these probably won’t kill you, they can cause an upset stomach and possible (unwanted) hallucinations.
Habitat: Usually next to Silver Birch and Beech trees amongst sphagnum
Average cap size: 10cm
Season: June - October
Cooking ideas: You can never go wrong with sauteing mushrooms with a bit of salt, garlic (wild if you can get it!) and butter, bread/toast optional. They also go great in creamy pasta or risotto. If you want to store them for use all year round, get a dehumidifier to suck out the moisture and store them in a sealed jar, then just add water to them again when cooking.
Porcini / Cèpe / King Bolete
Another prized mushroom, generally more challenging to come across than the Chanterelle in our experience, although found in abundance in mainland Europe. The Porcini, sometimes known as a Cèpe (pronounced “Sep”), grows naturally in Pine forests, and amongst the bases of other hardwood trees like Oak, Beech and Spruce. They have brown caps with a distinctive thick white, bulging stem, usually with a sticky texture. The underside of the cap is a porous, spongy texture (often a good indicator of an edible mushroom as opposed to having gills on the underside). Taste-wise, they are nutty and earthy, with an almost meaty texture. They are often difficult to find fresh because grubs love to eat them so much, but don’t let a few bites out of one put you off. Tip: Don’t bother looking near ferns, as ferns like acidic soil which Porcini’s don’t.
Cooking ideas: Add rich flavours to broths or stews. Top steaks or chicken. Fry them in a bit of salt, garlic and butter, and possibly a bit of a flour coating. A big cap can be grilled as an alternative to a burger. Mince it into a paste as a spread for bruschetta. Stick it on a pizza.
Habitat: Generally at the base of hardwood trees like Pine, Oak and Spruce
Average cap size: up to 12 inches
Season: August to October
Chicken of the Woods
A vegan converts dream. Named so because it genuinely tastes and has a texture like chicken! They are a faded yellow colour, and often a globular, fan-like shape with angular white/pale yellow pores on the underside and a white flesh when sliced. Chicken of the woods will be found growing in tiers out of the side of Oak, Cherry, Sweet Chestnuts or Willow trees. Also sometimes Yew trees, however, care should be taken as these can cause a dodgy stomach because Yew trees absorb toxic alkaloids. They are best picked young for taste.
Cooking ideas: A replacement for chicken. Sauté until golden brown on either side. Use them in casseroles or stews. Battered and fried for chicken-of-the-wood wings. Grilled and slapped on a bun with cheese, pickles and relish
Habitat: Growing out of the trunks of Oak, Cherry, Sweet Chestnuts or Willow trees. Be aware of them growing out of Yew trees as this may cause an upset stomach.
Average cap size: up to 45cm
It is useful to note that as well as being completely sure about identifying what you are looking for safety, foraging should also be undertaken respectfully. Getting permission for landowners, or picking on public land is recommended. Usually, it will be fine as long as you are picking for personal use. Avoid over-picking so populations of wild edibles can regrow, and so as not to damage wild habitats. Lastly, do be careful you are sure you know what you are picking because some fungi are poisonous - if you know someone who can take you out to show you the ropes, then do that to learn!
There are so many other edible mushrooms to pick, but we’ve kept this list to the magic three so they are easy to remember for folk starting out. That said, if you’re an avid mushroom forager we’d love to hear what your favourite edible fungi are? Let us know in the comments below.