These little beauties are one of the most eye catching winter fungi on the woodland floor, displaying a stunning vibrant red colour and lighting up amongst the green mosses. In Scarborough, the fruit bodies used to be arranged with moss and leaves and sold as a table decoration. They are so magical that it is said elves use them as a drinking receptacle.
Description and species
Scarlet elf cup (Sacoscypha coccinea) is a species of fungus in the family Sarcoscyphaceae of the order Pezizales. There is a very similar species, almost undistinguishable, known by the same name in English (Sacoscypha austriaca). They are both edible and can be found in Britain.
Furthermore, there are more species native to North America and other parts in the Northern Hemisphere, with very subtle differences: (Sacoscypha occidentalis) and (Sacoscypha dudleyi).
Scarlet elf cups are also related to the equally beautiful orange peel fungus (Aleuria aurantia), a very similar but larger, orange fungus that grows in soil instead.
These fungi have deep and irregular shaped cups with a vivid red inner surface and an ochre felted outer surface, up to 6cm diameter and 2cm tall when mature. They have a tiny stem attached to dead wood, often buried in moss or leaves. They are covered in minuscule felt-like white hairs and are not visible at first sight.
Notes on edibility
The edibility of scarlet elf cups is not clearly established, as some authors list the fungi as inedible, meanwhile some top chefs are serving them as gorgeous wild treats. I have tried these ruby gems several times and I have never encountered any problem.
Perhaps, they are not commonly regarded as edibles due to their slightly woody texture or small fruiting bodies. However, the main culinary value resides in the splash of colour they offer to the dish and the versatility to prepare stunning dishes.
Foraging in season
Elf cups are fairly abundant and widespread across Britain and can be found in many parts of mainland Europe and North America as well.
These indulgent fruiting bodies are usually produced during the coolest months of winter and early spring, when not too many things are growing in the wild. They are one of the few mushrooms that grow in below-freezing conditions and may last for several weeks if the weather is cool enough.
Scarlett elf cups can be found in large quantities surrounding woodland streams and are happy to grow in damp and shady places, appearing on dead twigs very often buried in moss. That said, it often means you will have to venture into the mud to get your lunch.
Storage and processing
When picking scarlet elf cups, you need to wash them thoroughly, as they can get really muddy, because they are very often buried in leaves and moss. They are not easy to clean and maybe a brush can help with the task. Elf cups dry really quick, but it is best to eat them fresh.
Culinary uses and recipes
Scarlet elfcups have a subtle earthy and mushroomy flavour with a slightly woody texture. However, the most important feature is the colour. When eating wild mushrooms, always take a nibble first to make sure they don’t have any adverse reaction on you.
The fruiting bodies seem to be designed to use them like little baskets. Fill them with other seasonal ingredients to make raw wild canapés: think of wild garlic, three cornered leek, sorrel, baby velvet shank, garlic shoots, garlic mustard or purslane. Play with colour contrast and don’t overpower with too much flavour, as they are mild in taste.
They also look stunning sprinkled in a seasonal wild salad with other wild edibles or tossed into a boozy fruit salad adding Kirsch liquor to the elf cups for a sweet flavour.
Elfcups can also be cooked, but they tend to lose their flavour when overcooked, so add them just before serving if used in stews. A simple stir fry with garlic and parsley on toast is awesome, but you can be more adventurous and try scarlet elf cup ketchup, that surprisingly will retain most of its colour.