Here are some mushrooms that are perhaps the easiest to identify.
The Giant Puffball [Calvatia gigantea]
A globular white mushroom that can grow to enormous size. Some specimens have weighed as much as 15 kilos. Always in grassland, looking like a lost golf ball or a small sheep, it gets its name from the mature mushroom’s method of spreading its spores: the ball bursts, and the spores can be puffed from it by squeezing it.
Only the younger specimens are edible. If spores have formed inside it should not be eaten. Like all foraged mushrooms, it should be cut in half to check for invading insects and the like. If the inside of the puffball shows any sign of any colour other than white, discard it.
Young puffballs are the ideal breakfast mushroom, sliced thickly and fried in bacon fat.
The Cauliflower [Sparassis crispa]
The cauliflower fungus grows parastically at the base of conifers. It does vaguely resemble a cauliflower – it’s white with a hint of beige, and its many lobes form the same sort of shape as a cauliflower, though it might as easily have become known as the brain fungus (or, indeed, the over-cooked egg-noodle mushroom). Whatever you think it looks like, it will shine out at you from under a conifer. You’re unlikely to find more than one at a time, but they can grow very large indeed (several pounds in weight), so you can take some to feed a few and still leave more for others. The folds and crevices of the mushroom can harbour all manner of things (earwigs, for instance), so it will need a very thorough wash. Luckily Sparassis crispa doesn’t absorb water as readily as most other mushrooms This is another soup mushroom, at its best when used like a noodle in a broth or consomme
The Lawyer’s Wig [Coprinus comatus]
More often known as the shaggy ink cap, its colour, curling ‘scales’ and general shape give rise to its alternative name. Found on grassland and wasteland, it’s a very delicate mushroom that can push through tarmac as it grows, yet deliquesces rapidly into a black ‘ink’ as a means of distributing its spores.
The caps of fresh specimens can be sprinkled with a little salt and kept in an opaque, lidded container for a few days, where they will naturally dissolve into a black mushroom stock that can be added to a great many dishes but is perhaps best suited to a risotto.
They can be eaten while still in solid form, though they will release a lot of liquid and have a delicate flavour which is easily overwhelmed.
The Ear [Auricularia auricula-judae]
This auricular delicacy once had a longer common name, unsuited to modern sensibilities – now it’s just anyone’s ear (sometimes ‘wood ear’ ‘monkey’s ear’ or ‘jelly ear’). They can be found in some supermarkets as a dried mushroom, usually sourced from China and often called ‘cloud mushroom’.
But they’re readily found locally, growing on living and fallen wood (usually elder). After it has been raining they have a noticeably ear-like shape, with a pinkish-brown colouration and a jellyish texture. In dry weather they are shrivelled and darker but can still be harvested and reconstituted by soaking in water. In their dry state they can be stored for months.
This mushroom has been used in western folk medicine and is still valued medicinally in China. Research has recently suggested that it has cholesterol lowering properties – which is as good an excuse to eat a mushroom as you might need. Shredded, they make a fine addition to a spicy soup, providing a seaweed-like crunch. I like them raw in a salad, to provide a little variety in texture, but they should be washed well beforehand (you may want to blanch them too). They are not good fried like most other fungi as their texture is more gelatinous than spongey.
As with most mushrooms, the younger specimens are more palatable – and as with many other fruits, it’s relatively easy to tell the fresher specimens from the older, tougher examples.
Steve Wallis has been foraging for fungi since 1993, with years of experience working on a wild site of woodland and heathland in the New Forest. All of the mushrooms described here, and many more besides, grew profusely across the estate, sparking an interest that became a passion. Steve believes that good mushrooms are going to waste, because we regard them all (in the wild) with suspicion – even though we readily learn to distinguish sloe and elder, for example, from all the poisonous berries.
Steve is an active member of the local Green Party and author of Common Words an anthology about the history, landscape and wildlife of Greenham Common.