Late summer sees the emergence of a variety of edible fungi, a warm-up act for the main fungi-foraging season in Autumn. One of the most interesting, at least in terms of looks, is the Beefsteak Fungus (Fistulina hepatica). This species emerges from old Oak trees or stumps (sometimes also Sweet Chestnut) from July to November in the form of a moist, pinkish-red, tongue-shaped bracket, becoming purple brown with age. Look below and you will find whitish or yellowish tubes that bruise red when rubbed. Brackets can reach 10-25 cm across and are 2-6 cm thick.
It is when you tear the bracket open that it really gets interesting. The flesh that is revealed looks remarkably like raw meat, pinkish with white veining and even ‘bleeds’ a watery, red sap.
Should you find all of these features, you can be in no doubt that you have located a beefsteak fungus, but though it looks appetising, the sour taste is less than spectacular. Nevertheless, it has been sold as a meat substitute in French markets. Some guides recommend soaking strips of the fungus in milk for two hours before cooking to remove the sour and bitter flavours intrinsic to this species. It can then be used like steak, grilled, barbequed or added to stews. I don’t find the flavour too bad, and eschew the soaking recommendations, preferring instead to fry strips in oil with plenty of salt and pepper.
The resulting flavoursome, crispy coating means the fungus mostly provides an interesting meat-like texture – a friend even said it tasted like bacon!
Aside from its culinary uses, beefsteak fungus is of economic value, insofar as it causes ‘brown rot’ in oak timber, making it a darker, richer colour that is sought after in the furniture industry.