Believe it or not, this bizarre specimen – the wood cauliflower (sparassis crispa) – was the first I ever found. I was on a one-day introduction to mushroom-hunting course at the Iris Griffith Field Studies & Interpretive Centre in British Columbia, Canada. For an extremely reasonable price, two enthusiastic amateur mycologists led us through a couple of hours of education in safe fungi collection. They provided us with the tools, as beginners, to continue the hobby by ourselves, rather than stressing how complex the world of mycology can be. This scientific field can indeed be extremely complicated, but it does not always need to be. It is accessible.
They introduced us to the key identifiers you should become familiar with to feel confident collecting mushrooms, such as colour, shape, smell, texture and growing environment, to name but a few. They told us about their favourite books, why they found them useful and how to get the most out of them. They displayed examples of the beautiful, magical spore-prints all mushrooms produce and showed us how to make our own. And then the really exciting part, taking this basic knowledge out into the forest to find our own. That day I found lobster mushrooms (sadly unavailable in the UK), chanterelles and – most excitingly – one of these delightful cauliflower mushrooms. It was all profoundly inspirational.
I will never forget the feeling of joy I felt at rounding a tree and seeing it there, in all its strange glory. I had been introduced to this species earlier in the day, so even after only a short education, I knew what I was looking at.
The only other time I have found this enchanting mushroom since then is this autumn, on a truly epic forage in which I discovered a staggering array of colourful fungi (read about this here). It was absolutely thrilling to find another one and I cradled it like a baby for the rest of the hunt, sniffing it, stroking it, loving it!
As you may have gathered, it is quite a rare mushroom, but as it’s so easy to identify and so exciting to find, I wanted to highlight it for you here. I mean, what else that grows on this earth (maybe in the sea?) that looks like this?! It is also, as I continue to reiterate with all my favourite mushrooms, MAGGOT-FREE!!
That being said, it has lots of folds and crevices that can hide other kinds of forest life, so be sure to clean it thoroughly. Unlike other mushrooms, which I try to keep as dry as possible by just brushing off the dirt as best I can, I dunk and swill this one several times in a basin of water to make sure all the dirt and insects are freed (of course saving their little lives where I can!).
I have only cooked this mushroom twice, for obvious reasons, and both times I sautéed it. This was delicious, but the mushroom did not cook down to very much and took on a texture somewhat akin to rice noodles. It was lovely sprinkled on a homemade pizza and sandwiched between layers of potato in a creamy gratin, but I can’t help but think there might be a better way.
I have heard that they benefit from a quick blanch in boiling water, but I hate subjecting anything to the diluting properties of a huge pan of hot water, so I avoided this. Can anyone advise? Does it firm up the mushroom and enable you to utilise its remarkable shape better? What happens? They come into my life so rarely that I am reluctant to seriously experiment. I have also heard they are lovely broken into chunks, dipped in a tempura batter and deep fried. This may have to be the next way I cook them – want to keep that shape!
I have included below the key characteristics of cauliflower mushrooms to get you started. These are not the only characteristics of these mushrooms, but they are the ones I have found most useful. When foraging for mushrooms, you should always take great care to be sure of what you are eating. This could involve going out with an expert guide or could be achieved by consulting several reference books – always more than one book – and examining the mushrooms meticulously yourself. I never eat a mushroom that I am not absolutely sure about. I have discarded many mushrooms because one minor characteristic did not match or because I didn’t feel completely able to visualise the description in the book for accurate comparison. It is always better to be safe than sorry. There will be other mushrooms.
- the most distinctive feature of this mushroom is its fantastic shape – a cross between a cauliflower and coral
- it has numerous curly, flattened waves growing from a short, thick stem – the waves are brittle (so be careful)
- the whole thing is between 20-50cm wide
- the mushroom is dirty cream coloured, darkening with age
- it has a strong, distinctive smell – sweetish, slightly strange, not appealing to everyone
- it is found at the base of conifers or nearby, during autumn
- maggot- (but not insect-) free!
NOTE: These identifying characteristics are specific to the UK only. Most likely, the characteristics of cauliflower mushrooms found in other countries will be similar (I have found these both in Canada and the UK), but there could also be differences I am not aware of, or other potentially look-a-like mushrooms that are not found in the UK.
Recommended Mushroom Books & Websites
To see or buy my favourite beginner’s mushroom book, River Cottage Handbook No. 1 by John Wright, click here. To see a detailed post describing my favourite mushroom identification books, websites and apps, click here.