Thursday, 12 September 2013

Hermitcraft: Lobster Mushrooms

Lobster mushrooms punch up all over the North Coast this time of year, which is remarkable since they don't really exist. The grotesque red masses you see here are really coarse old Russula brevipes infected with Hypomyces lactifluorum mould. But the effect is striking, both visually and gastronomically. By themselves, R. brevipes and Lactarius piperatus (the other common host) are plain to ugly, and not very good eating. (The latter in particular is apt to be too horseradish-peppery for many palates.) But attacked by the B-movie mildew, they become choice.

The origin of their common name is a bit mysterious. It may be the flaming colour, similar to boiled crustacea. Or it may a hint of lobster flesh in their flavour and consistency. But they're delicious in any case, and very showy on the plate. Better still, enormous average size and a tendency to grow in dense colonies means you can harvest a bucketful in no time.

Where I live, lobster mushrooms revel in gravelly roadsides and driveways (where they get absolutely filthy), and the fringes of salal banks. Many are almost subterranean, barely cracking the ground, having to be dug as much as cut.

However you find them, lobsters should be sliced cleanly at the base, whereupon you will be blinded by their snowy-white flesh. (The sooner the better; worms like them, too.) A toothbrush under running water scrapes the muddy dross from their rutted, ruffled caps.

Traditionally these mushrooms are chunked and pitched into seafood stew, either alongside the catch of the day, or as it. (In which case you've got vegetarian lobster bisque.) You can also slice them into steaks, marinate mildly, and grill them over charcoal. Or just enjoy the classic 'shroomer standby: sautéed with a little garlic and a pinch of herbs. (Also a good way to prepare them for freezing.)

Sources are vague on the risks implied. In theory, a poisonous mushroom infected by Hypomyces lactifluorum might be dangerous, and most sources urge collectors to be certain of the host before indulging. Problem is, my mould H-Bomb so disfigures its partner that identification is difficult; I've seen professionals throw up their hands. Then there's the dramatic power of Hypomyces to alter mushroom chemistry, well-demonstrated in the resulting flavour. Some experts believe it has the same effect on any toxins present. Finally, it rarely (possibly never?) infects any but its favoured hosts.

As a lifelong forager, here's my take: lobster mushrooms are among the most sought-after fungi in the world. Tonnes of them are swallowed each year in dozens of countries. And I can't find a single documented reference to any specific case of lobster mushroom poisoning anywhere.

So I eat them. (Note: like all wild mushrooms, lobsters should be cooked before eating, which has a moderating effect on some toxins, assuming there are any, which there's not supposed to be, because you identified the mushroom before you ate it.)

So if you see a large, velvety, blood red, tortured, muddy glob on the ground, have a second look. These unique organisms may appear unappetising, but they don't taste that way.

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