AKA – Judas Ear, Jews Ear, Wood Ear
- Edibility – 3/5 – While the feint flavour and slippery yet crunchy texture aren’t particularly esteemed in western cultures, they work well eastern cuisine – especially miso soups, stir-fry etc.
- Identification – 5/5 – Cup-shaped, becoming irregularly lobed and often ear shaped. Up to 7cm diameter, but usually smaller. There are other gelatinously textured fungi, but few share the shape, colour and form of jelly ears, and none are known to be worryingly toxic.
- Distribution – 4/5 – Common where elder are present
- Season – All year, especially autumn and winter.
- Habitat – growing on dead deciduous trees – almost always elder, but also other hardwoods.
This rather dubious looking little mushroom’s binomial name (Auricularia auriculae-judae) is similar to its traditional name of “jew’s ear”, which isn’t considered very PC in some circles nowadays. It isn’t as pejorative as it may initially sound, referencing the christian tradition that Judas Iscariot hanged himself from an elder tree – this mushroom’s favoured habitat. Thus, its original name was “Judas’ Ear”, and “Jew’s Ear” seems to have been a natural contraction of that. The origins and evolution of names is fascinating, and its fun to relate this lineage, though I generally introduce it as jelly ear in the first instance, to avoid misunderstandings.
Either Judas was very small, or it was a particularly substantial elder tree he chose, or, as I suspect, christianity was trying to enhance its plausibility by ’cashing in’ on pagan traditions that long predate it. I usually pick it as a by-catch on an elderflower/berry foray, though winter is a good time to harvest, dry and stock up on it as a larder item.
Jelly ear naturally de- (and re-) hydrates in the wild, often looking like shrivelled, hard dark knobs, a fraction of their hydrated size and easy to miss, in warm dry weather. It can be picked in this state and rehydrated. I pop them in my drinking water bottle an scare kids 20 minutes later with a the big “jellyfish” that has appeared!
Its fun to rehydrate jelly ear in interesting liquids. Try soaking the dried growths in dashi stock to ramp up the umami. Or in fruity booze (elderflower liqueur or elderberry gin complete the circle quite pleasingly), before drying a little again, then covering in chocolate to make rather interesting “turkish delight”. I believe we have foraging legend Fergus Drennan to thank for this twisted genius, though many have since copied the idea and claimed it as their own.