In search of a marvellous meat-free treat? I have found the perfect fungus

I have an excellent mushroom supplier in Croatia. Her name is Meri and she is well into her 70s. It’s really good gear she gets me, I promise you. I would put you in touch, but I want to keep this precious source to myself. These aren’t magic mushrooms, by the way, but these mushrooms are magic. They have a texture as meaty as any meat I remember eating back when I ate meat. They are known as vrbovača after the (willow) tree they grow on. She buys them in the spring in Osijek, in eastern Croatia, freezes them and brings them to the coast in the summer.

I always assumed these were a little-known local secret, but it turns out these devastatingly delicious things are everywhere, which begs the question: why aren’t we eating them all the time? Laetiporus sulphureus is, strictly speaking, a bracket fungus, and it is more commonly known as chicken of the woods. I have only ever come across it once in the UK, as a starter in a fancy restaurant in west London. I was disappointed with the tiny threads I was served; my Meri’s Laetiporus sulphureus are bigger than the plate this starter was served on.

Once a year, in Croatia, is much less often than I want to eat these miracles. I was therefore delighted to read on the Woodland Trust’s website that the species is common in the UK, growing mainly on oak trees but also on the trunks of yew, cherry, sweet chestnut and willow from late spring to autumn. There are some grave warnings of the possible consequences of eating the ones that grow on yew trees, let alone any other species I would surely pick in error, but if you can find an expert to find some for you, my strongest advice is to give them a try. For me, next summer feels an awful long way away.