October – Hedgehog mushroom
AKA Wood hedgehog, hedgehog fungus, Pied de mouton (France)
In the odd world of fungi, the hedgehog mushroom still manages to stand out as eccentric. Its the joker in the pack, and for anyone who is struggling to get to grips with identifying edible wild mushrooms, its refusal to conform to even the loosest of mycological norms make it a godsend. Better still, it is fairly common, immune to insect attack and very tasty.
Beneath the caps of most mushrooms you will usually find gills (ranging from the pink/brown slats of shop bought button mushrooms to the ‘combed plastercine’ effect of chanterelles) or pores (as in the spongy tube openings of boletes such as ceps). These fungal formats comprise over 90% of the good edible species, but also the vast majority of inedible, poisonous and downright lethal ones too. Many of the latter do frustratingly good impressions of the former.
The demented, inspired and capricious god that designed fungi must have been feeling generous when he created the hedgehog mushroom, as it is one of very few fungi that bear their spores on downward-pointing spines rather than gills or pores. The 14 or so other ‘tooth fungi’ that occur in the UK are all rare, quite different looking and more or less non-toxic (read more about them under ‘expert foray’ here…)
Three rare tooth fungi, all quite unlike true hedgehog mushrooms (L to R): Devil’s Tooth (Hydnellum peckii, inedible), Shingled hedgehog (Sardonicum imbricatum, edible) and a new to science unnamed tooth fungi that we found in Abernethy forest. To read more about these mushrooms click here.
Hedgehog mushrooms can be found nestling in grass and moss beneath spruce, pine, birch and beech trees between September and December, where they can look like puddles of of spilt cream in the arboreal twilight. Of course dozens of species have pale caps, but a quick check for pale cream to salmon pink coloured spines on the underside will confirm your catch.
Its a good job that they have their tell-tale protrusions, because most other things about them are quite variable. The cap can be fully grown anywhere between 4cm and 20cm in diameter – though the word diameter infers a reguarity of shape which you will rarely encounter. Both cap and stipe are eccentric to the point of potty, often lopsided, fused together or even bracket-like. Colour also varies from very pale cream through yellow, buff, chanterelle orange to salmon pink. Anything with a green tinge is literally beyond the pale and should be disgarded. Without wishing to complicate a mushroom that I promised you would be simple, orange and pink specimens are often smaller and more frail, in which case they may actually be hydnum rufescens. But you needn’t fret about this – the difference is scientific, not culinary.
Although hedgehog musrooms aren’t quite as common as chanterelles, you can often find them growing in the same locations. I know a few patches where, just as the chanterelles are starting to look tired and soggy, the hegehog mushrooms start to emerge, bright, fresh, tender and stubbornly resistant to the depredations of the late Autumn weather. They are solid little things too, and you can fill a basket with them in short order from what may initially look like a meagre patch.
Although they don’t look quite so glamorous as pristine chantetelles, I actually slightly prefer their flavour and texture – sort of the pretty girl’s plain, oddball sister, who is actually more fun to hang out with! With this in mind, I treat them like chanterelles, except occasionally buying them a drink – try flambeing them in calvados after sauteing before finishing with creme fraiche for a really decadent treat.
During October also look out for waxcaps, winter chanterelles, ceps, chanterelles, cauliflower fungus, parasol mushrooms, shaggy inkcaps, sweet ciceley, cow parseley, rosehips, sloes, sea radish, hairy bitercress, shellfish, yarow, sea kale, wood sorrel, elderberries, watercress.