Unlikely looking food

2nd January 2013 

Back to grey and wet, no surprise there. Out looking for winter fungi today, especially Velvet Shanks which can be found right through the winter months. Unfortunately drew a complete blank  apart from a few birch polypores and old earth balls.

In a patch of mature oak woodland I did however find something to forage….Oakmoss.

Oakmoss Evernia prunastri


This grey-green, mossy looking growth is in fact a lichen and not a moss at all.  Lichens are curious composite organisms, being a combination of an algae and a fungi and some species can be used as indicators of air quality as they are sensitive to pollution levels.  Oakmoss, Evernia prunastri, is found across the northern hemisphere, usually growing on Oak but can also be found on other species including conifers.

It has a strong distinct aroma described as mossy,woody,earthy or even “christmasy” but I also think there is a distinct iodine quality to the smell. These qualities have made it a favourite for the perfume industry where it is used to impart deep earthy qualities to a perfume and also a fixative because of its ability to hold on to more volatile components of the perfume. It is used in many well known perfumes and aftershaves including;- Chloe, Channel No.19, Calvin Klein Obsession, Armani Eaux Pour Homme, Davidoff Cool Water, Ralph Lauren Polo to name just a few. It is commercially grown in south-central Europe for the perfume industry. It is also used in soaps and hair products and pot pourri.

When Oakmoss grows on conifer trees it can also take on the turpentine qualities from the conifer resin and is even more valued. In Morocco the lichen grows on the Cedar trees which grow on the northern slopes of the Atlas. On our Desert Survival training courses we have seen it collected and dried by the indigenous Berber people and used as a spice, particularly with couscous.

It has featured in a couple of the dishes that have been served at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant as an infusion to accompany eel and to created “an oak-scented vapour” to go with quail. More recently is was used as an accompaniment to wild mushroom croquettes on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “3 Good Things”. For this it was simply fried in hot vegetable oil for 5 seconds until crispy. Frying really intensifes the smell, but the taste is comparatively delicate. Cooked like this, it certainly works well with mushrooms adding to that earthy flavour and would also work with the strong robust flavours of game. To me there are flavours not dissimilar to those found in saffron and so it could be crumbled over rice and couscous or mixed with other wild spices. It burns easily so don’t go over the 5 seconds of cooking and you want the oil temperature about 180 degrees centigrade.  Alternatively, use it as the Berbers do and simply air dry the lichen.

There are components in Oakmoss which can be strong dermatalogical allergens so people with perfume allergies should avoid it and only try small amounts the first time you try it.

Lichens take a long while to grow so only collect small amounts of Oakmoss from the wild, and ideally collect it from fallen branches to minimize your impact.

Kev Palmer

Senior Instructor

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