Tag Archives: wild mushrooms

St George’s Mushrooms


Calocybe Gambosa, or St George’s Mushrooms, are one of the few edible fungi that always appear in the spring.  The name comes from their uncanny habit of appearing on St George’s day (April 23rd).  They were one day late this year, although I have not seen a large quantity of pickable size until today.  This is normal – they start to appear around St George’s day (rather unusual for them to be early) and then continue to grow for several weeks, finally disappearing with the first really hot weather.

They are saprophytic, and grow in a wide variety of habitats (woodland and grassland, by paths, and also in gardens and cemeteries), often in rings.  They are very likely to be growing somewhere near you, right now.

St George's Mushrooms (Calocybe gambosa).  Picture taken on May 17th, in Brighton, Sussex.

St George’s Mushrooms (Calocybe gambosa). Picture taken on May 17th, in Brighton, Sussex.

They are reasonably safe for beginners to pick.  If they grew in the autumn they wouldn’t be, because they are white-gilled mushrooms, and any mushroom which appears in summer/autumn and has gills that stay white should be treated with major caution by foragers because of the possibility of confusion with the deadly amanitas (in this case the destroying angel and the white form of the death cap).  Those deadly amanitas don’t appear in the spring, so St George’s mushrooms aren’t usually confused with them, and there’s nothing else dangerous that looks like these, appear in the spring, and smell like these.  The smell is a dead give-away – once you know the smell then there is nothing you could mix them up with, and even for somebody who has never found them before, it helps to know you are looking for something with a strong and distinctive odour.

Few wild mushrooms provoke as much disagreement over palatability as these.  They are the fungal equivalent of marmite; some people love them, others hate them.  There is also a wide range of opinion of how best the taste should be described (bonemeal, bread dough, melons…) Because of their strong taste, it is inadvisable to just use them as substitutes for normal mushrooms in recipes.  They are traditionally served with liver, but will work just as well served on their own, fried in butter, with just about anything.  What they don’t do is combine with other flavours as you’d expect normal mushrooms to do, so be experimental, but don’t assume that everything you try with them will work!

Happy hunting,


Auricularia auricula-judae


At least nobody is going to argue about its latin name!  In this case, the latin name was derived from an English common name that predates it (Judas’ ear) and which is still in common usage in the slightly altered form of “Jew’s ear.”

Jew's Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae), mid-April.

Jew’s Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae), mid-April.

There has recently been an attempt to change this common name.  In 2003 the British Mycological Society published a new list of common names for fungi, and in most cases the motivation where there was a new (or newly “official”) name was either to provide a common name for species that had none or to select one common name for species that had several. Where possible there was also an attempt to make them more taxonomically consistent, although this has only been partially successful due to many changes in latin names due to advances in our understanding of fungal taxonomy as a result of widespread genetic testing.  This species was a special case, because it was the only one where the motivation was that of political correctness, the claim being that “Jew’s ear” is anti-Semitic.  My own view concurs with that of mycologist Patrick Harding – that this an abuse of the English language and that the BMS should be concerned with fungi, not politics, religion or the evolution of the English language.  I see no reason to believe this has anything to do with anti-Semitism.  Judas Iscariot was a Jew, and the mythology in question is an integral part of the Christian religion – this species is found most frequently on elder trees, either dead or alive, and it was an elder tree from which Judas supposedly hung himself.  If this is going to be considered anti-Semitic then the whole Christian religion must be considered anti-Semitic.  This it may be, but it is not the place of the BMS to get involved in such issues.  If people have a problem with the anti-Semitic nature and history of Christianity, then I suggest they take it up with their local church, or maybe the Archbishop of Canterbury.  I shall continue to call this fungus “Jew’s ear.”  If other people want to call it “jelly ear” then that’s up to them.

The naming situation is further complicated by the fact that although this particular species has never been widely consumed in its home territory of northern Europe, it has a close relative which is an important culinary and medicinal species in several south-east Asian countries, especially China.  Auricularia polytricha, known in China as “wood ear” or “cloud ear”, and in Japan as kikurage or “tree jellyfish”, is taxonomically distinct, but there is no important difference from a culinary or medicinal point of view.

Bumper haul of Jew's Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae)

Bumper haul of Jew’s Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae)

Jew’s ear is very common and can sometimes be found in vast quantities.  One of those times is right now, at least in my home territory of Sussex.  This is the second fruiting of this year.  I found quite a bit of it around Christmas and New Year, but haven’t seen much of it since then, until two days ago, when I found this lot.  Plenty more were coming through, so I decided to pick a large bagful and experiment with it, there being very little else in the way of edible fungi available right now (though this is going to change in the very near future when the warmer weather finally arrives  from tomorrow onwards.)  There are no similar poisonous species, so this one is reasonably safe for beginners to collect (although not entirely foolproof – I saw somebody get it wrong on the internet last year.)

And experimentation may well be required if you’re going to do anything culinary with it.  I’m not going to provide any recipes here, but I can point readers in the general direction of two culinary uses.

The first comes from Roger Phillips’ seminal book “Wild Food.”  That book contains a recipe for Jew’s ear rolls, which are basically “swiss rolls” made from soft, sliced white bread with a jew’s ear, garlic and herb filling.  It took me several attempts to get this recipe right.  The fungus has to be cooked on a very low heat for at least twenty minutes.  If the heat is too high then the garlic will burn and the fungus is likely to explode and end up all over your kitchen walls – or in your eyes, so watch out. If it is not cooked for long enough then it will be too rubbery.  And you have to use the right sort of bread or the rolls won’t roll properly. Once you have got to the stage of getting the rolls rolled, and staked with a cocktail stick, then they can be coated with butter and placed in an oven to brown.  I finally got the recipe to work at the third attempt, and was very pleased with the result.

Hot and sour jew's ear and bamboo shoots, with egg.

Hot and sour soup with jew’s ear and bamboo shoots, with egg.

The second is the most common traditional usage from Asian cooking, and that is hot and sour soup.  I’m not going to recommend any particular recipe because I’m no expert on Chinese food and there are literally hundreds of versions of hot and sour soup.  It is an entire genre rather than a specific dish.  I was pleasantly surprised by the version I cobbled together yesterday, which involved bamboo shoots, chicken stock, fresh ginger, red wine vinegar, dark soy sauce and a beaten egg.

Anyway, if you want to try foraging for this species, now is a good time to go looking.

Sheathed Woodtuft: Too Dangerous to Eat?


There are quite a few poisonous/edible lookalike pairs of species of fungi.

The most famous of these pairs is probably the death cap (Amanita phalloides) and the horse mushrooom (Agaricus arvensis), but there really isn’t any excuse for getting these two confused.  Yes, they look rather similar, and they can grow in similar places, but a death cap emerges from a sac (a “volva”) and a horse mushroom does not.  In other words, provided you do a bit of basic research, and keep your eye on the ball when it matters, then there is no reason to worry too much about getting them mixed up.

It is considerably easier to confuse fool’s funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa) with the miller (Clitopilus prunulus), and although the C. rivulosa is less dangerous than a death cap, it is still dangerous enough to regard the very-tasty miller as a species which should be left alone until you have got a good idea what you are doing.  You certainly shouldn’t go near it until you’re absolutely certain you know how to identify the poisonous Clitocybes.   But again…there’s no reason to regard the miller as too dangerous to eat.

The same cannot be said of sheathed woodtuft (Kuehneromyces mutabilis).

Sheathed woodtuft (Kuehneromyces mutabilis)

Sheathed woodtuft (Kuehneromyces mutabilis)

This species, I have recently discovered, is very tasty indeed.  I now regard it amongst the very best of the edible wild fungi – one of the few that are worthy of being included in a recipe specifically as the main source of flavouring for the dish.  It is also common – not very common, but common enough that I expect to find it every year, and with the added advantage of regularly appearing outside of the main mushroom season, as well as fruiting in abundance more often than not.

So what’s the problem?  The problem is that this one has a lookalike that is not only deadly (containing the same toxins as the deadly amanitas), but which is extremely difficult to reliably distinguish from sheathed woodtuft.   It goes by the name of “funeral bell” (Galerina marginata) and it is a species for which I had been searching, without success, for over a decade.  Maybe I was missing it, or perhaps I was mis-identifying it as a Psathyrella, or a member of some other group that is of little interest to foragers.  I suspect, though, that I just wasn’t lucky (or maybe unlucky) enough to find it.

I have always had a rule, you see, about edible/poisonous pairs of fungi: I don’t eat the edible one until I’ve found and identified the poisonous lookalike.  Last autumn (2012) I broke this rule.  I ran out of patience, having come across what I was convinced was sheathed woodtuft for the umpteenth time, and knowing they were supposed to be good eaters.  So I decided to employ a new tactic, specially for this case.  First I nibbled just a quarter of a cap (they are small).  Just enough to get a taste, and to see if there would be an adverse reaction.  Having survived this first taste (and discovering it was indeed very tasty), I ate one whole cap the next day.  Again I waited, and again there was no adverse reaction.  The following day, with the mushrooms still sitting in my fridge, I ate three of them.  Again I waited, and again I woke up the next day having sufffered no ill-effects.  By now I was confident of my identification and I finished off the rest of them, and they did not disappoint.

Then, on December 17th, while out on a walk across the South Downs organised by a friend of mine (not specifically a foraging walk, and not a route I had chosen) I was surprised and delighted to find, and identify in the field, the poisonous lookalike.  My walking companions couldn’t quite understand why I was so excited about finding a mushroom that could not be eaten, but for me it was like any sort of collector who has come across something very special they have been seeking for many years.  There it was, innocently sprouting from a log in a small, unmanaged tract of ancient woodland, nestled in the hills between Brighton and Lewes.  I’d completed the pair, and I now feel considerably more confident for the future.

Funeral bell (Galerina marginata)

Funeral bell (Galerina marginata)

I still know nobody else who has eaten sheathed woodtuft.  I have not given it to anyone else to eat (customers or friends), and I know of nobody in the foraging or mycological communities who’ve been brave (or silly) enough to take what looks like a pointless risk with their lives.

So why are they so hard to tell apart?  They look very similar, and they grow in similar habitats (although sheathed woodtuft prefers deciduous stumps and funeral bell prefers conifers). They have a similar growth habit (at least sometimes they do, and that is enough.)  Sheathed woodtuft tends to occur in greater numbers, and in much denser tufts, whereas funeral bell troops (it is distributed more sparsely over the log/stump.)  The stems are also slightly different (funeral bell has a silky stem, sheated woodtuft is more “hairy”) – at least usually they are.  And they also dry out differently after being made wet (sheathed woodtuft dries from the middle outwards, funeral bell dries from the edge inwards).  The problem is that none of these distinguishing features is completely reliable, and when you’ve only ever seen the deadly lookalike once (or no times at all) then it is almost impossible to be 100% confident of your identification.  Plus there’s always the nightmare possibility of both species sharing a stump.

So I’m afraid I still can’t recommend anybody go out foraging for sheathed woodtuft, and for now I still regard it as too dangerous for me to send customers home with, or give to my friends and family to eat.  It is one thing taking a possible risk with my own life, but quite another to take risks with the lives of others.

Perhaps I’ll feel differently next time I come across what I now consider to be a delicacy.  More likely, at least until I’ve eaten them a few times, or come across funeral bell a few more times, I shall just use the danger-factor as an excuse to scoff the lot myself!