It looks like being an early start to the autumn fungi season, I have seen quite a few in the woods recently and last week I saw this magnificent specimen. It is known as Chicken of the Woods in Britain and Polypore soufré in France.
As its name suggests, chicken-of-the-woods has the texture and flavour of chicken. It is one of the few edible bracket fungi and is eagerly looked for on mushroom forays. You can now buy chicken-of-the-woods kits which allow you to grow them in your garden. However, be warned, this species causes gastric upsets in some people, so if you have not eaten it before its best to try only a little to begin with. I removed a small amount and took it home but decided not to eat it partly because of the warning about gastric upsets and partly because it has quite a metallic smell, and I think this specimen is getting past the ‘young and juicy stage’ so is not that tempting.
Laetiporus is a genus of bracket fungi growing throughout much of the world. Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), also known as the sulphur polypore, is a safe and easily recognized edible mushroom with a soft texture and no gills. The mushroom grows in large brackets – some have been found that weigh over 45 kg, and they can be 5-60 cm across. It is most commonly found on oak trees, though it is also frequently found on yew, cherry wood, sweet chestnut, and willow. You may find this mushroom during the summer and autumn, but rarely in winter or spring.
This large, brightly coloured fungus is typically found in clusters but is occasionally solitary. Chicken of the Woods is leafy in shape and grows in a semi-circular form around tree trunks or stumps. Bright yellow and colourful when young, the Chicken of the Woods begins forming with multiple thick, petals that develop a bright ivory and yellowish-orange colouring on a velvet-like outer skin. It tends to lighten in colour near the edges. This mushroom has no gills, instead its bright yellow undersurface is covered with tiny pores. As it matures, it becomes thinner and speckled with many small dark brown spots that develop into a mixture of tan and off-white shading as the fungus gets lighter in colour and becomes shaped like a wrinkled fan with multiple leafy protrusions. When young, it is thick and juicy with a soft and spongy texture, becoming hard and brittle or crumbly as it ages. Chicken of the Woods should be harvested when they are young and tender, as older specimens get more woody and develop a sour flavour. Specimens that are found attached and growing on conifers and eucalyptus are considered inedible.
Chicken of the Woods grows in trees that are either living (as parasites) or decaying (as saprobes). The mushrooms cause a reddish brown cubical heart-rot of wood and can destabilize a tree by hollowing out its centre. Although rarely fatal to the host tree it may cause it to decay to the point where wind or hail could knock it down. Historically, this fungus was known to damage the wooden ships of the British Naval Fleet.
It is bizarre looking mushroom, and is quite popular for human consumption in some areas, although it has a very woodsy and fungus like flavour and a strong fungusy smell which some people find off putting. Chicken of the Woods actually behaves a lot like chicken when cooked, having flaky white flesh and can be prepared in most ways that you prepare chicken meat. Chicken of the Woods is a good choice for vegetarians as a mock-meat menu item. When cooking Chicken of the Woods, make sure that it is fully cooked, as there are reports of people being adversely affected when the mushroom was not cooked. This is believed to be due to a number of factors that range from very bad allergies to the mushroom’s protein, to toxins absorbed by the mushroom from the wood it grows on (for example, hemlock), to simply eating specimens that have decayed past their prime. As such, many field guides request that people who eat Chicken of the Woods exercise caution by only eating fresh, young brackets and begin with small quantities to see how well it sits in their stomach
Chicken of the Woods should be used within several days of being picked. Store it in a paper bag in the fridge before using it, and make sure to brush it gently to remove dirt and plant material before cooking it. Use only leafy and tender sections of the fungus. It does not dry well, although some mushroom hunters have found that it can be frozen for long periods of time and retain its edibility. In certain parts of Germany and North America, it is even considered a delicacy. The best way to preserve it is to fry small pieces in butter and then freeze them for up to three months.
The flavour is somewhat like chicken. Meaty in texture, it has a noticeable aroma and flavour that provides an excellent enhancement to rice, risotto, curry, and various chicken or poultry dishes, such as chicken and turkey casseroles. Adding bite size chunks to pork or chicken casseroles or curries for the last 20 minutes of cooking will add a wonderful extra depth and taste to the meal. The mushroom can also be sautéed in butter, flavoured with garlic, onions or shallots, and served as a side dish or an ingredient in egg dishes.
Chicken of the Woods Omelette recipe (serves 4)
1 cup diced Chicken of the Woods
1/4 cup shredded cream cheese
2 or 3 shallots, diced
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
5 or 6 eggs
1/2 cup cream or milk
Salt and pepper
3 Tablespoons butter
Melt the butter in a heavy frying pan over low heat. Beat the eggs and cream, add salt and pepper to taste and pour into the pan. As the eggs start to cook, sprinkle the Chicken of the Woods, cheese, shallots and parsley over the top. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes more until the egg mixture sets. Fold the omelette over and remove from the heat; cover and let sit for 1 minute.