A British friend visited me at my Dutchess County apple orchard home several years ago on a cool early spring day and immediately began poking carefully through the cold, wet detritus at the base of the old trees. He skipped quickly from one tree to the next with an air of excitement, hopping over unfolding fern fronds, brushing his fingers carefully through the rotting leaves. What are you doing, I asked?
“Morels!” he replied gleefully. I thought I’d misunderstood him. You mean morals, I asked?
“Mor-els!” he repeated, “You haven’t seen them about?” My expression of cluelessness told him all.
“They’re fungi, delightful morsels that reward those who don’t mind getting cold and dirty, often coming home empty-handed from the hunt. But sometimes you’ll find enough of the little buggers to make the most exquisite sauce for a bowl of hot pasta. And old orchards, such as yours, are just the place to look for them.”
Although we went home empty-handed that day my curiosity was piqued. But since any food found growing in cold mud and rotting leaves was way past the classic (and dangerously erroneous) “five-second rule,” I thought I’d first learn to safely identify a true morel.
Morels, while exceedingly delicious and equally rare, just look odd–like a ridged, pale kitchen cleaning implement–and grow very briefly in odd locations. They grow under the ground in the first inch or two of ground cover, mainly on decomposing wood chips and leaves that provide the proper high humidity and correct temperature. Morels are found in moist areas around dying or dead elm, sycamore, ash trees and, thankfully, in the old, abandoned apple orchards of the Hudson River Valley. Despite their relative scarcity, they can be found almost anywhere in the U.S., except the desert and deep southern coastal areas. (Minnesota is so enamored of these favorite fungi that the morel is the state mushroom.) Inexplicably, black morels grow abundantly in habitats recently scorched by a forest fire. The mechanism for this mystery is unknown but well observed. Like ramps and other perennial favorites, they often grow in the same spots year after year, but when these habitats are razed they often produce a bumper crop the following spring. The Finnish name for “morel” is huhtasieni, from huhta, a term for an area cleared for agriculture by slash and burn. Commercial efforts to raise morels are rarely successful; the price of a pound of morels can run as high as $25 or more, if they can be found at all.
Morel season typically runs from early- to mid-April through mid-June. The weather, including air and ground temperatures and the ground moisture levels, has the biggest impact on the morel season. Most mushrooms do best in 79–82 degrees Fahrenheit; morels prosper at 50–75 degrees, hence their early spring appearance. Daytime temperatures between 60–70 degrees and nighttime lows in the mid-40s are ideal. It’s difficult to determine what rain levels are optimal, but too much rain can inhibit morel growth. Scant rain and dry soil won’t work either. Soil temperatures should range between 50 and 60 degrees.
Morchella, the true morel, is a genus of edible mushrooms closely related to anatomically simpler cap fungi. The source of the morel spore is the root cause of the mystery that surrounds the morel’s appearance. They arise either from an underground root system or via airborne transplantation. The spores can drop from the “holes” in the cap, whereas other mushrooms have spore-laden gills under the cap. After the mycelium (the mass of branched, tubular filaments) has colonized the ground substrate it creates fruit bodies in three to 10 days. The first time I saw one it reminded me of a three-inch slice of pale, corrugated tripe on a thick stem. A tripe-sicle?
Previously one of the pinnacle ingredients of French haute cuisine, morels are now sought as much for the sheer enjoyment of the hunt as they are for their gastronomic or financial importance. Morel hunters can be extremely secretive and guarded about their best, most reliable source. To be invited on the hunt is a confirmation of friendship, and explicit trust.
On our farm, Apl Has, the annual morel hunt, is an all-hands family tradition; at one time, a line of hunters stretched from my two-year-old granddaughter to my nonagenarian dad.We stepped slowly through the rows of ancient, tumbledown apple trees scanning the ground with the utmost care. Who wants to be guilty of crushing underfoot the most important ingredient of the evening’s feast? Once spotted, pinch and twist off the top of the morel with your thumb just below the pale, corrugated cap. This also lessens the amount of dirt you’ll put in your carrier. Equally important, having a light hand also leaves the web of mycelium beneath the soil intact and available (maybe) for another season’s crop. It’s impossible to foretell whether the perfect combination of temperature, moisture and nutrients, undisturbed by animals, insects or other pesky mushroom hunters (known among the cognoscenti as “shroomers”), will bestow a harvest the following year. I carry a small pocketknife for this task but I carefully wash the blade before each morel hunt to prevent possible contamination of the mushroom’s stalk with unseen but potentially damaging microorganisms. Like other edible fungi, and most fresh foods for that matter, morels should have a pristine appearance; gently dust off any dirt with a damp rag or soft brush.
Morel hunters can be extremely secretive and guarded about their best, most reliable source. To be invited on the hunt is a confirmation of friendship, and explicit trust.
Opinions vary on how to carry your cache of delectables out of the woods. The utilitarian shroomer might choose mesh bags or cotton sacks that allow the morels to “breathe.” Mesh bags or carriers with vents or small holes also allow microscopic spores to fall out along your path and start the growing cycle all over. The more refined morel hunter might use a beautifully crafted wicker or wooden basket. Plastic bags however don’t permit the movement of air within, causing the morels to quickly become soft and mushy.
The morel darkens along the stems and cap as it ages. Discoloration and decay are good indicators that the morel is past its prime. Desperate, or dedicated, “shroomers” may gather “bad” morels anyway, choosing to trim the spoiled spots off when cleaning and preparing. The tips of the caps, usually the weakest part of the morel, may be missing since this part is subject to damage from the hot sun or night frost. If the remainder of the morel looks fresh and healthy, trim the bad parts later. Some “shroomers” invoke a 50 percent factor rule: if 50 percent looks good, grab it.
Once you have brought your morels home, rinse them thoroughly in water, then slice them lengthwise and rinse again. Soaking in salt water on the premise that it kills insects and bacteria is debatable; it may render the morels too salty, and prolonged washing or soaking ruins their delicate flavor. Due to their natural porosity, morels may contain trace amounts of soil, which cannot be washed out. When they begin to wrinkle, retrieve them and dry them very gently with paper or cloth towels. Finally, place the morels in a large bowl, cover with either a damp paper towel or a damp scent-free cotton cloth and store them in the refrigerator. Thus prepped and stored they can be safely eaten within a week–assuming they are fresh from the start. Unfortunately morels don’t have a “use by” date stamp. Use good judgment as you would with any other food you are storing in the fridge.
Mushrooms can be dehydrated by placing them on single-layer trays in a food dehydrator at 100 degrees Fahrenheit for one to two hours or until they wrinkle and feel hard. Dehydrated morels in a sealed plastic container can be kept for six to 12 months. A warm milk bath will soften and rehydrate them. Or freeze morels by arranging them on a cookie sheet in the freezer until they are solidly frozen and transfer them into a sealed plastic freezer bag. Frozen morels can be kept for one year.
What’s in a Name?
First of all, they are called “more-els,” not “morals.” “Morel” itself comes from the Latin word maurus for “brown.” That said, they are known by a lot of different, colorful names, depending upon the local culinary vernacular. For instance, “dryland fish” (don’t confuse with a regional bluegrass band of the same name) is common in Kentucky, where they’re also called “hickory chickens.” “Merkels” or “miracles” are other Appalachian appellations, based on the legend of a mountain family saved from starvation by eating morels. In West Virginia they’re “molly moochers.”
I admit that my first hunt was more frightening than successful. As a self-taught shroomer, everything I learned came from the Internet. As noted onWikipedia, “When gathering morels, care must be taken to distinguish them from the poisonous false morels, including Gyromitra esculenta and Verpa bohemica [which] can sometimes [be] eaten without ill effect [but may] cause severe gastrointestinal upset and loss of muscular coordination….” These false morels contain a toxin, an organic, carcinogenic poison. False morels differ from the true morels by their cap’s wrinkled or “brainy” appearance, rather than the true morel honeycomb or net-like appearance. Gyromitra esculenta has a cap that is generally darker and larger than the true morels. Another way to tell the false from the true morel is to look inside the stem. False morels contain a cotton-ball-like material inside their stem, whereas true morel stems are hollow. Toxins are removed by thorough cooking; never eat morels raw. The first time you eat morels or any mushroom, consume a small amount to minimize any allergic reaction. Shroomers, beware. Do your homework first and always try to obtain a second opinion with an experienced shroomer.
Consuming the Reward
There are many mushroom hunters, as well as more than a few professional and home chefs, who admit that the thrill of the hunt outweighs the actual flavor or the morel. Some guests at my own table couldn’t understand the cachet attached to the morel meal I proudly served them, and to my resulting sadness–and disbelief–they began to lay on salt and cracked pepper with a heavy hand.
Morels are the quintessence of “delicately flavored.” They draw their taste from their natural surroundings, so when cooking and consuming think, “forest, nutty, woodsy.” Can “fresh” and “forest floor” coexist in the same sentence, indeed in a single taste? The strongest scent I’ve ever encountered when cleaning morels in my kitchen was vaguely reminiscent of chestnuts and distant wood smoke. Keep these terms in mind when deciding on a beverage: light, crisp, clean is better. And moderation is the key to avoiding an unwanted trampling of the morels delicate flavor. Perhaps it’s best to think in terms of color: with hanger steaks blackened yet bloody, think robust; with morels light tan and coy, think of the freshness and delicacy of spring.
Words of Warning
Don’t eat any mushroom unless you are ABSOLUTELY sure that it is safe! Mushrooms and false morels can contain toxins that are highly poisonous. If you are in any way uncertain about the edibility of a mushroom, don’t try it. If in doubt, throw it out! While information about edible and poisonous mushroom is widely available in books, field guides and on the internet, experienced foragers are the morel hunter’s best friend. Go hiking with experts who can show you how to identify the important characteristics of edible and poisonous mushrooms.
This story was originally published in March of 2011.