What we're looking at here are two big hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, grifola frondosa, and one lovely specimen of a tooth mushroom, genus hericium. Whether it's the hericium commonly called a bear's head, lion's mane, old-man's-beard, or something else, I'm not sure. There's a lot of taxonomical confusion in the tooth mushroom world, I gather--and that's coming from sources far more knowledgable than I: David Arora author of the definitive (well, almost definitive, I guess I should say...) Mushrooms Demystified, for instance. It doesn't matter much, though, because all the hericiums are distinctive (as a group), edible, and, in my experience, delicious.
I've been finding these particular mushrooms for so many years now, they're like old friends. Old friends that you pluck, slice up or pull to pieces, saute, and eat.... Well, let's say they're like gifts from old friends, which is indeed what they are. The mushrooms you eat are the fruit of the fungus, which lives on after you've harvested said fruit, just as an apple tree doesn't mind if you gather its apples.
I see in my notes that I first located this tooth mushroom in 1998! It was growing in a scar in a maple tree near one of my favorite trout streams. It reoccured in that spot for several years, and then, two years ago, failed to appear. I figured that was the end of that but, hoping that it might have spread its spores to a receptive tree nearby, I checked back again last year, and found it fruiting again on the same tree, but in a different spot. It's now expressing its fungalness through another scar a couple of feet over my head, so I have to knock it off with a stick and catch it as it falls.
This year's specimen weighed just over two pounds. Those hens-of-the-woods, on the other hand, which I've been finding in the same spot for six years now, weighed in at over eleven pounds for the big one, more than five for the "small." Around here (Minnesota and Wisconsin), hens are almost always found at the base of white oak trees. They parasitize these trees, and after they've helped to kill them they'll often live on for years on the stump, which is where I found these two.
Though hens and tooth mushrooms aren't closely related, they're structurally similar, both put together a bit like a head of cauliflower, with lots of branches emanating from a solid central core. Here they are each in cross-section:
When you find mushrooms of this size, you get a lot of opportunities to experiment. We have sauteed, roasted, chopped into stuffing, grilled, used in pasta sauces. The simple saute, in good butter, with some onion or shallot and garlic, a sprig of thyme is still probably our favorite method, and we love to spoon that over a plain omelet, with of course a slice of toasted country bread alongside. These mushrooms are also fantastic when they soak up the fat and juices as they roast along with a chicken and chunks of autumn vegetables. Oh, and now I'm remembering a wild mushroom bechamel sauce made with hens, some tooth, and puffball mushrooms that contributed to the best lasagna ever.
In a cool autumn with enough rain, but not too much, you can find hens and tooth mushrooms over a period of weeks. We have finally had some decent rains here, and on a walk through the grouse woods with Annabel yesterday (seven flushes, two shots fired, zip in the game bag), I noticed more mushroom activity than I've seen all year, though nothing I knew to be edible save for a couple of water-logged oysters. It's a lovely time of year to be in the woods, anyway, even if no birds or mushrooms come home to the table. Take a walk, a pocket knife, a good field guide, and appropriate caution in approaching wild mushrooms. You're guaranteed a fine time.
Text & photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw