If You Go Down To The Woods Today

My housemate makes a lot of noise.  It’s her job.  Often I am lulled awake by the sound of scales being played on the French horn,  hymns on the piano, lovely Bach or the oddly charming farty sounds of the serpent.  But today in place of many of these came a series of excited monkey squeals. ‘Ooh, ooh, squee!’  she cried, ‘we found chicken-of-the-woods!’

Chicken-of-the-woods has tasty flesh and lives in trees.  So far, so avian.  However, it is a mushroom.  To be precise, Laetiporus sulphureus, an enormous deep yellow fungus that creeps along the shadowy crevices of  trees and drains them of their moisture until the tree eventually dies.  It tends to colonise patches of oak woodland and infest all the trees there.  Luckily, as infestations go, it’s one of the ones you can fry in garlic butter and have for lunch.

(Image by Gargoyle888, used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

Now, before saying anything more about this likeable, mycological chicken,  here’s the important part:  gathering wild fungi  is serious business. If you pick and eat the wrong mushroom, it can kill you dead faster than you can say shiitake.  Some are so toxic that even touching them is bad news and what’s more, the poisonous ones can look just like the edible ones, differing only in minor details such as the colour of the gills or characteristics of the stem.   Housemate is an experienced forager and, more importantly, we have a pile of mushroom books in the house to cross-check appearance and characteristics. The interweb is quite useful too.

Badger badger badger badger badger...no, wait.

Badger and snake guidebooks just out of range

If you want to go a-picking of the fungal bounty, you absolutely must ensure that what you pluck from the ground/pavement/trees is edible and non-toxic. You have been warned.

A small percentage of people have a bad reaction to chicken-of-the-woods, so it’s important to treat it like hair dye and smear it all over your head try a little bit first in case you react.   Housemate fried it gently in butter for a few minutes,  til it was golden and cooked – we thought cooking it thoroughly would reduce the risk of a bad reaction.  Besides, almost anything savoury is made palatable by frying in butter, maybe with a little garlic.  If you can’t improve something by frying it in butter, it is officially less appetising than snails.

Rosemary and pine nut bread with chicken-of-the-woods morsels

'Tastier than snails' test

The morsels were chewy and dense and had a bland, faintly fungal taste.   But its consistency really is a lot like chicken.  Our guest said it reminded him of Quorn.  ‘People should totally eat this instead”.  Housemate was still all bouncy at having finally happened across a fungus she’s been keeping an eye out for for upwards of 10 years.

After gobbling up a cork-sized piece each, we were pleased to discover that none of us react with vomiting, upset stomach or numbing of the lips and mouth.  Jolly good!  Non-toxicity is, after all, an important element of every meal.  So we headed back out to the woods behind our house to see if we could get any more.

I think that I shall never see/A billboard as lovely as a tree

O ho! What's this?

You're coming with me, sunshine

Housemate retrieved a generous quantity of fungus from the inner chamber of the oak, and we had it fried up with courgettes and garlic this evening.   Slightly woody, unmistakably wild and tasting…well, at least a little bit like chicken.

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