Festive Foraging

Winter is not the ideal season for wild food foraging, most of the autumn mushrooms have long since disappeared, fruits have dropped and withered, and the undergrowth provides little but a few straggly, unappetising greens. Yet there is hope! One of the true joys of foraging at this time of year is the chance to discover the Velvet Shank mushroom (Flammulina velutipes). Its Latin name, meaning “little flaming velvet leg”, is a pretty apt description. Even from a distance, the clusters of brightly coloured yellowy-orange-tan caps make this species easy to spot.

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Closer inspection reveals the reason for the second part of its name – the stems of older, larger specimens have an unusual, velvety covering.

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Despite the Velvet Shank being apparently common, this is the first season I’ve found it (possibly a result of reluctance to venture too far in the winter). What sets this mushroom apart from other species is its hardiness. While frosts and cold weather reduce other fungi to blackened mush, the Velvet Shank can survive being frozen solid, thawing out and carrying on growing and shedding spores. For this reason it is one of only a few fungi that can be found from autumn all the way through winter (when it is most prolific) until spring.

This feature certainly helps with identification; if you come across mushrooms growing from dead, decaying wood (particularly elm and oak stumps and fallen tree branches) in late December or January it’s a good indication that they may well be Velvet Shank. Nevertheless, caution is always advisable – there are two potential, poisonous lookalikes that could both appear in a mild winter). The Funeral Bell (Galerina marginata), which is deadly (containing the same type of toxins as the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides), but in lower concentrations:

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And the usually non-fatal, but poisonous nevertheless, Sulphur Tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare):

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So, this is how to be absolutely sure you have the correct mushroom. Firstly the caps- these are around 3-7cm in diameter, at first convex, but then becoming flattened. The Funeral Bell has a similar sized, bell-shaped cap and is more of a rusty brown colour, while the Sulphur Tuft has a sulphur-yellow convex cap, which does not flatten out. Another key feature of the Velvet Shank’s cap is that when it is wet is very shiny and sticky, a little off-putting when you touch it.

The stem also provides some important identification features – the Velvet Shank’s curved stem is yellowish near the cap but becoming dark brown and with the definitive velvety texture in mature specimens. It also lacks a ring. By contrast the funeral bell has a stem colour similar to the cap or paler and has a membranous ring that is critically important to note – if your mushroom has a ring on the stem, it is NOT a Velvet Shank. This feature alone is not enough as rings can be dislodged, but it helps build an overall ID. Stems of Sulphur Tuft are sulphur yellow with a faint ring zone, darkening towards the base.

Finally, to be absolutely conclusive, cut the stems off your caps and place them on a sheet of glass under a glass bowl. Leave for a few hours or even overnight and you’ll be left with a spore print as the spores settle from the cap. The spores of the Velvet Shank are unmistakably white, while those of the Funeral Bell and Sulphur Tuft are rusty brown, and purple-black respectively.

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As you can see, even without my spore print, the bottom of the basket that I left my specimens in overnight has an abundance of white spore deposits – a sign that makes me 100 per cent sure about my find.

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However, a further point of care is to check all your collected specimens, as there is a chance of finding these species growing alongside on another.

Once you’ve made your positive ID, you can prepare Velvet Shanks in several ways, they must be cooked first to be safe to eat and are good in soups and stews, or you can be lazy and fry them in butter like I did. Remove the tough stems and use the caps only, I simply added some cracked black pepper and sea salt and cooked thoroughly.

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Here is my finished, festive Christmas Eve breakfast!

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Is it worth it? Well, not only are these the definitive winter mushroom, they are also a wild version of a species that is cultivated and greatly appreciated in Japan. It is also available in expensive wild mushroom selections in U.K. supermarkets and delicatessens. In Japan they are known as Enokitake, but look totally different as a result of being grown in the dark in a high carbon dioxide atmosphere, making them turn ghostly white and elongated. One of this mushroom’s most exciting attributes is that several studies have shown it to possess anti-cancer, anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties with an immune-regulating effect as well – a super mushroom! An epidemiological survey of cancer deaths among Flammulina velutipes farmers in Japan found that the mushroom farmers had lower rates of cancer deaths than controls who were not involved in mushroom farming.

See: http://www.medicalmushrooms.net/flammulina-velutipes-enokitake/ for more information.

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