Eschewing the boxing day sales but keen for some fresh air to mitigate recent gluttony we took a short walk around our local patch yesterday. Finding a section of path into the Shire Brook Valley we had not previously used (this was accessed from the end of the Mosborough Parkway as it meets the Coisley Hill roundabout) we immediately found two exciting items of interest to the forager.
The first I was surprised to see as its green vibrant leaves were such a contrast to the cold earth still heavily frosted and patterned with the most recent snow. This was just a few metres away from the road under the canopy of trees and seemingly quite prolific, not quite carpeting the ground but certainly widespread. How does it survive? Although the temperature had crept above zero this ground had been under snow and at sub-zero temperatures for the last few weeks.
My identification is that this plant is Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) the closest relative of cultivated chervil and so of interest to us cooks. But conscious that there are a number of poisonous related species I am still nervous about this being a definitive identification and perhaps a visit to the post-Christmas sales to purchase an exhaustive field guide would actually be a good idea.
The main species of worry would be Hemlock Water-dropwort, Hemlock and Fool’s Parsley. These are pretty big worries too. For example, Hemlock Water-dropwort is one of the most poisonous plants in the Uk. It contains oenanthetoxin, a poly-unsaturated alcohol the name being derived from the Greek ‘oinis’, – ‘wine’ and ‘anthos’ – ‘flower’ usually said to be because the smell of the flower is like wine. It could be that smelling the flowers gives a giddiness like the effect of wine being the first signs of poisoning. The roots contain the greatest concentration of the toxins, especially in the winter. A small amount of raw plant material is fatal causing nausea, convulsions, excessive salivation and dilated pupils. Death comes quickly. The roots have been eaten in mistake for parsnips and the stems have been eaten as celery.
A closer look
Further research has indicated that Cow Parsley “stems die back in late summer but a second-growth of non-flowering stems and leaves appears in the autumn, and remains green throughout the winter months”. This seems to rule out Hemlock Water-dropwort where the first shoots are said to be first seen in February, and Hemlock first visible in March. However, that field guide beckons before I become totally confident on this plant.
The second find occurred all of 12 steps later and this time I was much more sure of my identification. Some dying elder branches held some very dried (and frosty) but still discernibly ear like fungus.
These I was sure were Jews Ear Fungi – here’s the description from Wild Mushrooms OnLine: “Jews Ear is a rubbery ear-like fungus that is also known as Judas’s ear fungus, or as the jelly ear fungus. This fungus is conspicuously ear shaped, ranging from purple to dark brown or black in colour with a rubbery texture, and most often found on dead elder trees but also on elm and beech trees. It was said that Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, hanged himself on an elder tree, which is the origin of the name. This intriguing name stuck, as the taxonomic name Auricularia means ear and the epithet “auricula-judae” means “the ear of Judas.”
The picking caused my children some merriment because shortly after the picture below was taken I found myself deposited on the floor, my foot slipping from its precarious bridged position.
It was worth it though because I very quickly had what I judged to be enough to try out in a recipe. Thinking of its glutinous, jelly like texture I thought that its addition to a hot and sour soup would be a good plan.
The Jew’s Ear after further drying overnight
The Jew’s Ears reconstituted in water
Peter’s Boxing Day Hot and Sour Soup
Ingredients for my Hot and Sour Soup – Jews Ear Fungus top left
I loosely followed the recipe from the Wild Mushrooms OnLine page but wanting to make it a more substantial meal planned on adding wheat free noodles and smoked tofu as well as some chickpeas I had cooked the previous day. I am also not too partial to egg so omitted the traditional last-minute stir through of egg and wanted to make it vegetarian so steered away from the pork stock base. Finally keen to be wheat free I also elected not to use corn flour – so all in all very loosely followed!
To make the soup I fried finely chopped red onion, ginger and garlic in a mixture of vegetable and toasted sesame oil, adding finely diced red and green chillies (I used some Killamarsh grown red chillies). I added some lemon grass stalks and some slice red peppers and the Jew’s Ears which after soaking in boiling water I had sliced (removing the slightly “soily” stalk ends).
Frying the base ingredients
In go the wheat free noodles
Once softened I added vegetable stock, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar some sugar and salt and pepper (careful with the salt as the soy sauce contains its own fair share). As a nod to the festive season (Ok I had some left over) in went some sliced sprouts and a good squeeze of lime juice. When judged to be nearly ready (I just gave it 5-10 minutes so that the sprouts would not over cook) I added the noodles which only take a few minutes to cook. The result was really pleasing. The Jew’s Ears added colour and a definite textural experience being soft but glutinously chewy and the sprouts were a sensation, still crisp but nicely disguised by all the other flavours.
To serve I was able to use for the first time a bowl bought at the recent Nether Edge Farmers Market made by Steve Booton. See his you tube video of the market here and 58 seconds into the footage a glimpse of the bowl before I bought it that very day!