It can be terribly hard to motivate oneself into the great outdoors at this time of year. It’s cold, miserable, and uninviting. I usually need a reason to get booted up and head out, and what better purpose could one find than to pick restaurant-quality wild food?
Wild food foraging
There’s less to find during the winter months, but the food you can forage is more welcome because of this scarcity. And there are some genuinely choice morsels to gather through winter, among which I hold the oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus, to be among the best. It’s easy to identify and it’s also a great starter mushroom if you’re not a regular forager. Most forest mushrooms grow throughout the autumn, but this one is more associated with the colder months and some patches are most prolific only after the first frosts.
This post frost growth is called ‘cold shock’, and it’s a process whereby different patches of the same species can coordinate to grow mushrooms and produce spores at the same time. Because the spores are released together, there’s a better chance of the new growth they produce meeting up with others from other patches and mating, producing new adult mycelium, and new patches of oyster mushrooms. They grow on wood, typically fallen stumps of old hardwood trees like oak and ash, but occasionally they can be spotted on live trees.
Finding oyster mushrooms
Start looking for the oyster in parks and woodlands, about a week on from the first frosts. This is the perfect time to find adorable, tiny baby mushrooms (technically called ‘primordia’) starting to grow from infected wood. Give them another couple of weeks and they’ll be about right for picking. Use a sharp knife to separate some from the wood, handle them gently, and take them home for tea.
Obviously, when picking any wild food, you need to be cautious. By all means invest in a good book on wild mushrooms, and sharing pictures online for advice isn’t cheating, in fact it makes sense. They grow in clumps of brackets, like shelves hanging from the wood, often starting off with such dark caps that they’re almost violet in colour, becoming paler as they grow and ending up grey to beige. The mushrooms have lilac-white spores that can often be found coating the caps of other mushrooms below, with creamy pale gills. They look like the oyster mushrooms you see in shops. Though they can be confused with the veiled oyster, Pleurotus dryinus, which is also good to eat. There are two similar species you might find in summer and autumn that are also edible.
Be warned, there’s one poisonous near look-alike and that’s the angel wing, Pleurocybella porrigens, which is pure white, has a somewhat felty feel on its cap, and is very rare anywhere in the UK south of Cumbria. This one is most commonly found on pine wood.
Once you’ve got your oyster mushrooms, what can you do with them? Any recipes used for farmed oyster mushrooms will do, and we often cook them simply with a little onion and garlic, toss in with pasta and chopped parsley, and eat them as a fast, tasty hot lunch. And they’re fantastic in Chinese food, where their firm texture when cooked fast is ideal. But here’s a favourite of mine:
Ingredients (serves 2)
2 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon of oil
400g oyster mushrooms
1 small glass of white wine or sherry
1 tablespoon of flour, mixed with…
1 dessertspoon of paprika (or more to taste), and a pinch of chilli powder
250ml of stock (chicken is good, vegetable works)
Half a cup of yoghurt
1 squeeze of lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Add oil to a pan. Dice the onion, fry it gently in the pan until it’s soft and translucent, chop the garlic and add it in, softening for another minute. Slice the mushrooms and toss them in, fry on medium heat and cook until they’re just soft.
Season with a little salt and pepper, add the flour, paprika and chili powder, and stir it in until blended with the mushroom juice and oil.
Now deglaze with the wine (or sherry), stirring in with the flour and spice mix around the mushrooms, add the stock, and cook it until it thickens. Let this sauce reduce for a few minutes, before taking the pan off the heat and adding the yoghurt and stirring in. A little squeeze of lemon right at the end lifts the dish even more. Check for seasoning, and serve with rice or crusty bread, and ideally a salad.