Morel Queen

Eliana didn’t miss a beat as I walked in the door, kicked off my boots, and slipped a small brown paper bag into the fridge. “Are those mushrooms? Did you find those in the woods?” She was onto me, leaving her post of helping mama stir shiitake and tofu to investigate.

Born at the end of morel season of 2014, she’s nearing her fifth birthday – old enough to have a refined palate and nostalgia for ephemeral forest flavors, but too young to have committed the ForageCast to memory. Still, she knew this May was a special time of year – and had noticed Papa’s eyes being stubbornly peeled to the forest floor on recent father-daughter outings. 

Truth is, this spring brought a delight even more poignant than morels – we welcomed her baby sister, Noemi Adela, to the world on May 16. Sweet and snuggly, she is a spring delight.  And yet, while having two daughters born in morel season is a beautiful thing, it doesn’t make for ample time to pursue those fickle fruits. While I’ve had more than my share of banner morel years, 2019 has not been one of them for this foraging father. Things were getting down to the wire – morel season ends in early June in Vermont – when I finally got a moment to myself and trudged off onto ash-laden slopes in the throes of a relentless rainstorm.

So, when I arrived home with paper bag in hand, squishy socks on my feet and a smile on my face, Eliana smelled a rare culinary opportunity. She stood on her highchair, yanked the bag out of its hiding spot in the fridge, and picked out two pristine yellow morels. She gazed at them as you might look at an old friend, one you had almost forgotten even existed, but whose presence summons the warmest feelings when your paths serendipitously cross again. I savored the moment, taking in this blossoming mycophile’s reverie.

There would be no waiting for Eliana, who had already jumped into action. A budding cook, she pulled her chair over to the stovetop and stood up tall as we sliced the morels into a dozen pieces and threw them onto a hot cast iron pan. We dry sautéed the mushrooms on a high heat to sweat off any moisture before adding a morsel of butter. If you’ve ever cooked morels, this is when the magic happens. Fresh, they are stunning visually but have an underwhelming fragrance. But as soon as those yellows hit the heat, they release an olfactory overload of gamey, umami goodness.

This is when I saw another lightbulb go off in Eliana’s head. “Oh, I remember what these mushrooms taste like,” she remarked, her young mind flooded with memories of morels she’d eaten in seasons past. “And what do they taste like?”, I asked rhetorically. Eliana offered as articulate a description of the morel’s ineffable flavor as I’ve heard in all my years of hunting: “Like mushrooms, mushroomy…like salt, and a little bit of butter”.

Then came the negotiation tactics. “Papa, you get two slices, Mama gets two, and I get the rest, OK?”, she implored. “No, Papa…you get one slice, Mama gets one, and I get the rest, because I love them so much,” she rescinded, realizing the first offer may have been a tad too generous.

As much as I love eating wild mushrooms, I derive just as much joy in sharing them with others, and this little girl was tugging at my heartstrings. Once the morels had been lightly browned, chewy and crispy at the same time, we scooped them out of the pan and I let Eliana plate them into three bowls. Needless to say, she got all the biggest and juiciest pieces, signaling her approval with a resounding “Mmm” chorus as she indulged.

Noemi, our newborn, may be in for some stiff competition once she’s ready to move beyond milk and try a morel for herself next May. Until then, Eliana is the family’s reigning morel queen.

By |May 29th, 2019|Foraging Philosophy, Morels, Mushroom Hunting|Comments Off on Morel Queen|

Family Foray

Plump hedgehog mushrooms are fruiting at the forest’s edge, but there’s no time to stop for these gourmet edibles – Eliana has already scurried up the rocky path far ahead of us. “Pa! Waxy caps!”

While not edible, these brilliant, diminutive red mushrooms that evoke the realm of woodland sprites are a favorite find for our mycophilic daughter. But this is no time to slow down. By the time I’ve reached the waxy caps, Eliana is already on to the next find, which she confidently identifies – “Pigskin poison puffballs!”

It doesn’t take much to excite the kid, yet she keenly understands the stakes of our hunt and keeps her eyes on the prized culinary gems: “Pa, do you know what my favorite mushrooms are?” I don’t have time to wager a guess, for she has swiftly answered her own question. “Chanterelles, black trumpets, lobsters, and lion’s mane. Can we find some of those?”

Our party of three resumes the hunt, feeling poised and purposeful in the wet September woods, and soon we have found each of Eliana’s favorites except for lobsters. That’s quite all right, since a hearty catch of lobsters already awaits us in a paper bag back home in our refrigerator.

One find stands out – a pristine golden chanterelle beside a bubbling brook, that Eliana carefully plucked and affectionately coddled as we traipsed through the woods. When we got home Jenna cooked a medley of our finds in a light cream sauce with tortellini, and Eliana devoured the morsels of black trumpet, yellow foot, and lion’s mane before noticing she had not yet tasted that lone golden chanterelle. “Mama! Is my gold chanterelle in here?” she demanded.

Sure enough, it was right there on Papa’s plate, the false, forking gills and golden hue still visible. Relieved, Eliana grabbed her fork, reached across the table and dug in, claiming the mushroom that was rightfully hers – that she had harvested from the cool earth just hours before.  There is nobody who would have appreciated that forest-to-table chanterelle more, or with whom I would have preferred to share it.

Early September may be my favorite time to hunt mushrooms in New England, with stunning diversity and no shortage of surprises. There are still a few more weeks to get out and enjoy the fruits of fall, as each crisp night finds new species joining the autumn entourage. We hope you are savoring the season.

By |September 4th, 2018|Foraging Philosophy, Mushroom Hunting, Wildcrafting|Comments Off on Family Foray|

Morel Revelation

No matter how many morels one has found, the first find of the season is always a revelation. I’m making a pilgrimage to an old favorite ramp patch, following a trickling streambed up a craggy hillside of hickory, yellow birch, ash and beech. It still feels early for morels in northern Vermont’s hills and I’ve learned to pace myself, saving the epic hunts for peak conditions. But with the sweet smell of springtime in the air and the temperature pushing 80, I can’t help but slow down beneath a hefty ash tree that somehow feels just right for Morchella.

My instincts do not let me down. The familiar feeling of disbelief and awe hits me as I spot an unmistakable black, honeycombed pattern just barely poking up above the leaf litter. I bend down to find a pristine pair of black morels, humble creatures of the earth that somehow never fail to capture a certain timeless reverie and glee.

I am alone in the woods, pondering what would have been the 60th birthday of my mother, who passed away in 2013. The early morel find cuts through everything, and suddenly every inch of the forest floor bursts open with potential and wild richness, a transformed interior and exterior landscape. It’s an ineffable feeling every seasoned hunter knows, and any new mycophile can experience for themselves with enough patience and prudence. When the morels find you, all you can do is graciously accept the gift, harvesting humbly and returning the delight in an act of reciprocity.

That is what I did, picking one and sharing it among the three of us that evening. By sharing, I mean our almost four-year-old Eliana pretty much ate the whole thing, Jenna got a tiny bite, and this papa was left to soak up the morel-infused butter in the cast iron pan!

Now that my eyes are on, morels are everywhere. I even spotted two yellows curbside in Montpelier today as I walked over to pick up my car from an oil change. I prefer my morels to be growing in a forest rather than along a freeway, but these coveted mushrooms can be found just about anywhere. Of course, that does not mean finding them will be easy. Morel hunting is hard work – more than any other species, it can demand profound patience and practice, and an intuitive sense of ecological patterns and landscape that can take thousands of hours in the woods to develop.

Still, even for new hunters, there’s always the chance of a serendipitous surprise. With the temperature, timing and moisture finally just right throughout New England, now is the time to try your luck!

Northeastern ForageCast for the month of May

By |May 16th, 2018|ForageCast, Morels, Mushroom Hunting, Wildcrafting|Comments Off on Morel Revelation|

The Loss of a Legend: A Tribute to Gary Lincoff

Gary Lincoff, legendary mushroom expert, naturalist, writer, teacher, and radiant spirit, passed away on Friday morning. He will be deeply missed. I never had the chance to meet Gary, but his work left a lasting impression on me and instilled an enduring sense of wonder for the mycological world. When I was all of ten, his Audubon guide caught my eye in a bookstore display, and I begged my mom to buy it for me. She reluctantly obliged, and that became the bible that I took on countless hunts and used to identify my first hen of the woods as a child.

Lincoff’s later work The Complete Mushroom Hunter is even more accessible and full of colorful, candid stories. But my wrinkled, field-tested Audubon guide will forever be the book that sparked my passion and awakened me to the vast, enigmatic world of wild mushrooms. Thank you, Gary, for your prodigious contributions to the wild world of mushroom hunting, and for sharing your knowledge so graciously with the next generation. It is work like yours, finding the pulse and abundance of the wild even in the heart of New York City, that breaks down boundaries and brings us closer to nature.

By |March 17th, 2018|Mushroom Hunting, Wildcrafting|Comments Off on The Loss of a Legend: A Tribute to Gary Lincoff|

Guardian of the Cinnabar Chanterelles

It’s nearly dusk and I am bushwhacking up a steep hillside of mixed conifers, punctuated by ancient oaks. The oaks that stabilize these craggy slopes are survivors – spared widespread logging not due to conservation but to convenience, the prohibitive price of hauling hardwood out a ravine.

One elder oak invites me to sit down and rest my spine against its sturdy trunk as I gaze down at the sloping forest floor and catch my breath. Sometimes the hunter sees more by slowing down. A sliver of sunlight catches the rich, rosy hue of a collection of brightly colored mushrooms, so I leave my pack by the oak and stumble downhill to investigate.

Soon I have harvested a handful of fragrant cinnabar red chanterelles, more elusive and exotic than their celebrated golden relatives. Cinnabars tend to be small and can be good hiders despite their brilliant red coloring, and I wonder if I am just scraping the surface of a bigger flush. In the dimming daylight I carefully massage the duff, pulling back a clump of decaying pine needles and oak leaves to find several new cinnabars stretching up from the ground. More and more cinnabars begin popping into view – most too young to harvest – but my hunter instincts keep me surveying the scope of the patch and planning a return later in the week.

Crawling around under a darkening sky, well aware that it’s time to head back uphill to reclaim the pack I’d left by the oak, I notice an odd buzzing sound. I look at the soil, just inches from my face, and see a few massive earthworms wriggling around nervously. I wonder if the wriggling of these behemoths is creating the buzzing sound, but I’ve never known earthworms to be very vociferous creatures.

I clumsily uproot a small cinnabar I did not intend to harvest, and as I lament my overzealous twilight hunting I hear the buzzing noise escalate.I look down and notice it is originating from my hand. A bee! I feel a sharp pain as the stinger sinks into the pad of my forefinger and, recalling the time my father was swarmed after sitting on a rotting log, I take off sprinting. I could hear more buzzing and envisioned a fiery swarm on my tail, and I bolted back up to my backpack and out of the woods, now dark. When I ran out of breath and looked back, I found not one bee had followed me. And why would they have? The bees were quite content to return to their duties protecting the cinnabar patch.

By |August 15th, 2017|Cinnabar Red Chanterelle, Wildcrafting|Comments Off on Guardian of the Cinnabar Chanterelles|
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