It’s January, and we’ve got the mushroom blues. It’s like the post-Christmas blues but worse. The frosts finally came and put an end to another fungal season. The forest floor is, for the most part, bare. Roll on next September.
There are, however, a very few species of mushrooms that have the special ability to survive a deep freeze. This is a post about them. The survivors. It’s also about pale, frightening tentacles that grow in the dark, but we’ll get to that.
The two most common and tastiest post-Christmas wild mushrooms are velvet shank and oyster mushroom. Here they are, in that order.
Velvet shank are smallish orange specimens that grow in large clusters on dead wood and small trees. Always a great find, they have a nice chewy, meaty texture and rich buttery flavour (enhanced by generous amounts of butter).
Oyster mushrooms have had a mainstream breakthrough in recent years due to the ease with which they can be grown in captivity – you might recognise them from the supermarket, or from your dinner plate at an Italian chain restaurant. Like everything, though, they’re better and more flavoursome when picked from the wild. Beautifully firm texture, easy to crisp up in a pan and with a subtle creamy flavour, they’re a real favourite among chefs, especially ours.
For our purposes – that is, for the purposes of consistently running a wild food kitchen every day – these are a great mushroom to find. They tend to crop up in large numbers and are very easy to preserve. The fact that they can survive frost means, conveniently, that they can also survive being kept in the freezer. Their firm chewy texture means that they also make great candidates for pickling. Lately we’ve been serving a special dish of smoked trout and oyster mushrooms and velvet shanks on toasted sourdough – the rich, smooth mushrooms making a great complement to the smoky fish.
You know those near-unchewable bunches of tiny long-stemmed mushrooms often served in Japanese dishes and sold in supermarkets as enoki? You might be surprised to hear that those mushrooms are exactly the same species as velvet shank: they are cultivated in special conditions to give them this very different appearance. As I understand it, the most important of these conditions seems to be darkness: the mushroom grows long and thin, using all its energy trying to find daylight so that it can spread its spores on the wind. Velvet shanks in the wild have a much shorter journey to daylight, so grow shorter, thicker stems which, you might have guessed, we much prefer.
What never occurred to me is that this process might occur with other species too. What would oyster mushrooms, for instance, look like if they were grown in the dark? This year we found out. Every year, I check the base of a local hollow tree. In summer the opening at its roots is usually filled with a hornet nest. In winter, oyster mushrooms fill the cavity. But every season, as the tree continues to grow, the opening, once big enough to poke your head inside, has got tighter and tighter. This year, the hole was only just big enough to fit my hand, meaning that the oysters have been almost completely deprived of light. Here’s what they are supposed to look like:
Oyster-shell-shaped cap, with lovely fluted gills extending down a stubby or almost non-existent stem.
And here’s what the poor light-seeking specimens looked like:
Gross right? Like a bunch of alien tentacles with tiny vestigial oyster caps on top. As unappealing as these are, they were pretty good to eat. The elongated stems were very firm, and because they grew so long, there was much more mushroom to go around. We’d still prefer regular specimens though. At the rate the hole in the tree has been closing, it’ll probably be totally sealed by next year. It’s a creepy thought – those alien fingers growing unseen, inside a sealed chamber at the heart of the tree, searching in vain for a chink of light – a route to the outside world…