Sparassis Crispa. It’s one of the tastiest mushrooms we’ve had the pleasure to serve at The Verulam Arms, and I’ve been lucky enough to find four generously sized hauls of it over the last couple of weeks. Its common name is Wood Cauliflower and, when I show you this picture, I think you’ll understand why.
Its size, and frilly white flesh make cauliflower an obvious comparison, but its texture and flavour are something else entirely. For one thing, unlike most mushrooms, sparassis doesn’t become soft and pulpy on cooking; it selection selection does get nicely tender, but always retains a certain egg-noodle-like bite. And don’t get me started on the taste!
Ok, do get my started. Even when raw, the Wood Cauliflower has a rich “mushroomy” umami aroma, which only intensifies when its flesh is lightly sauteed. But more than that, the fungus’ flavour has a certain something extra, which comes from the habitat in which it thrives. Almost always growing from the base of pine trees, and gently pushing itself to the surface through layers of needles, it smells and tastes unmistakably of pine. Not the piney tang of green needles and Glade plug-ins, but that comforting, warmingly autumnal and faintly resinous smell of soft pine litter. Know it? Like the sun setting slowly over the coniferous forests of Northern Spain. Like a handful of needles from last year’s Christmas tree, accidentally packed away with the ornaments and rediscovered next December, aromatic and dry as tinder. Like sipping redbush tea while sitting in an antique and darkly-laquered pinewood rocking chair…
Too much, I know, I’m sorry! It does smell good though.
At first I thought the smell was simply coming from the needles that manage to work their way deep into the folds of this fungus (or rather, the folds of the fungus grow around the needles. Wood Cauliflower is pretty hard to clean because of this – the way its lobes envelop surrounding material as they develop. A lot of fast-growing tree fungi will do this – I once found a rare delicacy: a chicken of the woods that had completely subsumed the young leaves of a bramble to create a beautifully green-yellow marbled mushroom), but even after thorough cleaning and cooking, the fragrance is potent. The piney flavour must be drawn up into the flesh of the mushroom directly from the roots of the host tree. I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone who has found a sparassis growing on an oak, as I hear it sometimes can. Was it oak-flavoured? Like a fine highland whisky aged in… ok, I’ll stop.
At The Verulam Arms, Wood Cauliflower has been an exciting addition to our wild food menu – particularly in our new spaetzle dish. The noodle-ish qualities of the fungus make it an interesting complement to our homemade dumpling-like German pasta.
Indeed, the sparassis is so noodly that you really can use it as a substitute in some dishes. Here’s a photo of something I knocked up at home – a fresh Asian-style vegetable stir-fry with Wood Cauliflower instead of noodles. Cooked by a rank amateur, of course, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, and the “noodles” were all the better for tasting like choice edible mushrooms!