HUNT FOR CHICKEN OF THE WOODS

The thrill of foraging mushrooms is akin to very few experiences.

The thrill of foraging mushrooms is akin to very few experiences, and can only be likened to winning an all expenses-paid trip to a truffle-foraging expedition in Provence (an experience I’d donate my kidneys for)!

Thaya Bedford

The scent of pine needles. The earthy smell released with every step taken. The rush of expectation. ‘Foragers do it in the woods,’ I say to myself and laugh as I walk. I take comfort that my trusty Opinel knife is in my pocket, ready to slice a mushroom at any moment.

I am on high alert, searching for this month’s mushroom – Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) – and I know it’s not going to be easy. Foraging has taken off in Cape Town of late, resulting in fewer fungi treasures to be found on the forest floors in recent years.

The trick is to spend time exploring the woods to find your secret spots that you can return to, year after year, which is difficult for people like myself who have recently moved back to the Mother City

We only get a few shots at it, from April to August-ish during ‘mushroom season’, and betweenworking office hours, Cape Town traffic and the sun setting by 17:30during those months, it proves challenging. Luckily, I have managed to locate a few secret foraging spots for other food that I know other foragers would be interested in knowing about, so I trade my knowledge of one spot with another forager and he reveals a general area where I will be likely to stumble across some juicy finds. Because foragers NEVER reveal where they find mushrooms, this is a huge gift I’ve been given!

And there I see it; an exquisite specimen gleaming from the trunk of a tree, as if hung there like a Picasso. A feeling washes over me like that of seeing land for the first time, when I paddled out too far in my kayak by mistake and thought I’d end up bearded and alone on an island like Tom Hanks.

Ahead of me is a shelf of Chicken of the Woods growing on an oak tree, untouched by mortal hands. I light up like a human carnival and head in for the kill.

Flicking my knife open, I cut through some of its flesh, leaving half of it behind for another forager, and remove a bracket of exquisite, fresh, oaky (the most coveted) fungi. I spy more of it growing further up and wish foragers well to find it.

I have experimented with this mushroom for years and find that my favourite way to prepare it is to slice the shelf up julienne style, fry in butter with garlic and shallots, lowering the gas after a few minutes and adding a dash of white wine, lashings of cream and a good serving of flat leaf parsley.

FOOD TIP
True to their name, Chicken of the Woods has the consistency of chicken when cooked, and can be added into stews, fried and used as a pizza topping, or enjoyed on their own in a creamy sauce. They are also brilliant in stir-fries, as a vegetarian ingredient in pasta and perfect as a ‘meaty’ ingredient for beefing up a salad.

I hope you learnt a little more about this wonderful ingredient and feel inspired to head out into the wild and forage this wherever you are in the world. Search on Google or in your mushroom guide book for the season that these mushrooms pop up in your region, and keep an eye out for these beautiful edible wonders of the forest. BON APPETIT!

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