It’s been cold this Winter – Damn cold! And there are few pickings out there for the mushroom hunter during any winter. But hold the phone, do not despair. There’s always some foraging delights to be had.
The Velvet Shank (Flammulina velutipes) is quite a common mushroom who’s fruiting season is mainly from September to March. It can resist the winter frosts and low temperatures, even continuing to survive after being frozen solid. Quite a trooper!
These beauties are usually found in medium to large ‘tufted’ clusters on dead or decaying wood, favouring elm and oak. Their caps are a striking orange-brown colour (much lighter at the edges) and is quite shiny with a distinctly sticky/tacky surface texture.
Normally I wouldn’t touch any mushroom or toadstool that falls into the ‘small brown mushroom’ category! Even though Velevet Shank isn’t exactly small (3 – 10cm cap diametre) my instincts at any other time of the year would tell me to avoid as some small brown species are quite nasty! But in this case, and at this time of the year (January to be specific) there is no fear of mistaking it with much else.
The defining factor in identification of this mushroom lies in the examination of the stem. As the common name suggests, it’s ‘shank’ or stem has a smooth (and strangely satisfying) velvety feel, and the colour is a very dark brown/black – lighter at the top (closer to the cap) and darker at the base. Other identification factors regarding the tough stem is the lack of any ring, and when cut in half horizontally, it will show different coloured, thick layers with a small central hollow (see the picture below). If you’re still not sure, take a spore print. It will show up white.
After collecting a few of these, I’ve decided to dry them out and then make a powder from them for later use (or maybe slow cook them to add to a Chinese dish). I’ve heard that this is what they are best used for. You can cook them but they lack any real flavour. The caps are best chopped into strips and added to soups. The Japanese can’t get enough of them and cultivate a form of the Velvet Shank in high quantities, commercially known as Enoki-take.