Morels

Mountains of Morels

IMG_9868

Three of the 300 morels

It was 11am, and our morel count for the day had already topped 300. We were not hunting the mighty burns out West, nor were we in the Midwest’s exceptionally fertile morel grounds. My guide, a gracious and seasoned hunter with a keen instinct towards ecological patterns, had led me to a mystery Vermont morel motherlode.

Discovering such epic patches requires an intimate understanding of soil, pitch, tree identification, region, timing, and other mysterious factors. Fortunately my guide knew exactly where we were heading as we scrambled through the dense undergrowth.

After climbing steeply uphill through brambles and downed branches, we arrived at the periphery of the hunting grounds. My chest reeled with adrenaline as I spotted the first trio of spectacular yellows. Morel hunting, which had always seemed thoroughly unpredictable and menacingly difficult in the Northeast, became delightfully abundant as our gaze fell from one morel to the next cluster. My morel eyes were on, for they had to be. This experience was not to be missed.

The whole cast of characters was present, including jaw-dropping and sprawling flushes of blacks, yellows, and two different false morels – Verpa bohemica, with cottony interior, and Gyromitra esculenta, with wrinkly, convoluted interior. Eating either of these falsies is strongly ill-advised.

My guide had informed me that this patch was one of dozens of comparable, even better, patches he had found throughout the last four years. I had only the morning to hunt, but just before 5pm, he let me know that he had found an additional couple hundred large yellows after I left. Not bad.

I have hillside porcini patches, yellowfoot bogs and black trumpet carpets, and with most foraging species, I see a method to the madness, clear patterns and predictable fruitings. But with morels, I have known only modest patches. I have enjoyed some delectable morels over the years, but the only time I found over 100, I soon thereafter realized the patch was adjacent to a contaminated superfund site.

Today the morels were from pristine forests deep in the rich woods, spilling out from trees by the dozen. These were some of the most generous trees I had ever seen. Many expert foragers I know report finding 100-200 morels in a strong season. Today, 100 became a marker for a good hour, rather than a good year of morel hunting. In the world of my guide, who has seemingly cracked the New England morel code, morels are everywhere, and new potential patches lie around each forested corner.

Upon arriving home, it wasn’t long before our daughter Eliana took interest, and reached into the bag to pull a nice selection of yellows, grays, and one black for the cast iron pan. I can report that their flavor, after a seven-minute sauté with butter and thinly sliced ramp bulbs, was divine.

Morel Mind

IMG_2740

It is the ultimate forager’s dilemma. After miles of hunting, you spot your first morel of the season, a pristine yellow. You yelp gleefully, smile uncontrollably, reach down to feel its cool flesh in your palm.  You reach for your pocketknife as you prepare to harvest it from the sandy spring soil.

And then, you spot the dog shit. Not just one turd, but two – not quite touching your prize, but undeniably too close for comfort. What’s a good forager to do?

It’s not easy, but you have to leave that morel in the ground, just as I did Wednesday night after discovering a morel at my favorite childhood swimming hole and dog run. The nuances of terroir are a beautiful thing, but the terroir of turd (or arsenic, for that matter) is simply not worth sampling.

If the problem is just a piece of poop, at least you have discovered fertile hunting ground, and you can bushwhack beyond the fray where you may find more morels without the baggage. If the problem is widespread contamination, well, at least you have gotten some good practice using your forager’s eyes. By a mysterious law of nature, once you have seen one morel, your odds of finding a new patch increase exponentially. You gain a newfound confidence, a heightened awareness of morel habitat and fruiting patterns. You have developed Morel Mind.

Morels are exquisitely wild, yet they have a penchant for colonizing disturbed ground, from the great burns out West to New England’s craggy (and often lead-laden) old apple orchards. Morels love roadsides, poison ivy, and treated wood chips as much as they love wilderness and ancient elm and ash trees.

As foragers, we know exactly where our food is coming from. I don’t buy morels at the grocery store, for there is limited quality control. Foraging is the art of finding the freshest seasonal wild foods, harvesting with an ethic of long-term stewardship, studying the nuances of place and the ecological history of the landscape, and cooking them with a sensitivity to the essence of each wild ingredient. Knowing your mushrooms means knowing the land from which they fruit.

ForageCast: Morels in the Month of May

IMG_2749

With only a sliver of sunlight left in the sky, I head for the hills in search of spring’s most coveted wild delicacy. Soon I find myself on hand and knee, scouring the soil beneath a giant ash as my setter howls madly into the twilight. I see a morel menagerie – plump and pickable blacks, yellows, and half-frees – in my mind’s eye, but my fingers find only leaf litter and hollowed acorns on the forest floor. I am hunting with my hands as much as my eyes, as the day grows dim and a silver crescent rises in the mid-May sky.

Suddenly I feel something cool, squishy, wrinkled, spongy, fresh and full of potential. My grip tightens as I pluck this vital object from the forest floor and raise it to my face for closer inspection. I did not need my flashlight – one rancid whiff was all it took to know this was no morel. It may have been a false morel, swallowed nearly whole (and regurgitated in similar form) by an unsuspecting mammal. It may have been something less exotic, a mere dog turd or hairball. Alas, we shall never know, for my repulsion trumped my curiosity as I flung this foreign object into the night. Some things are better left unidentified.

Morel madness is again taking the region by storm, as daytime highs in the mid-60s and rain-soaked nights summon these thoroughly wild and undeniably delicious fungi. Our 2016 workshop season kicks off next Saturday, May 21, with a double header at The Nature Museum in Grafton, Vermont, followed by a Sunday double header at Green Mountain Audubon in Huntington. These workshops, which are nearly sold out, will offer a new format as we learn how to safely, ethically, and fruitfully wildcraft culinary and medicinal spring greens, roots, shoots, fruits and, of course, mushrooms.

Northeastern ForageCast for the month of May!

ForageCast: Morels, with a Side of Arsenic

© Monica Donovan via 2013 photo shoot with Ari and Jenna

This proud forager has a confession to make – the closest I’ve come to a morel this spring was inadvertently stepping on a lone Gyromitra esculenta. It was a gruesome site, too – the convoluted, wrinkly flesh squished like a false morel pancake on the ground.

Up here in northern Vermont, peak morel season is only beginning. Veteran local forager Moore Mushrooms reported the region’s first black morel on May 7, but blondes are just starting to ripen this week. We were rained on heavily last weekend, and this week we have been blessed with the type of stunning, seasonal weather that summons morels and mosquitoes alike. Ramps are retreating, as Jack-in-the-pulpit, trout lily, trillium, and yellow lady’s slipper orchids bring sumptuous splashes of color to the sylvan stage.

But the big game is hiding in the shadows, at least for now. This is my third spring in Vermont, but as far as the morels are concerned, I am still a flatlander, a fledgling. I have an epic Vermont ramp patch, a chanterelle goldmine, even a riverside matsutake stronghold.

A good morel patch, however, can take years to find. Last spring I thought I had found my honey hole, a spectacular showing that made me feel like a morel millionaire. But as much as I love morels, I prefer them without a side of arsenic. My morel Mecca, it turned out, was uncomfortably close to a superfund site. And so it goes.

How does it feel, you might ask, to return your hard-earned treasure to the dank May ground? I submit to you that it feels better than suffering arsenic poisoning. While classic mycorrhizal fungi like chanterelles, black trumpets, and porcini tend to favor pristine woodland habitats, morels often pop up from disturbed ground. The well-known affinity of yellow morels for old apple orchards is particularly concerning. Fruit trees were routinely sprayed with lead arsenate throughout the 20th century, until it was replaced by the equally unsavory DDT in the ’50s and ultimately banned from orchards in 1988.

More research is needed to determine the extent to which morels and other fungi uptake heavy metals from contaminated soils. In the mean time, my quest for a pristine and plentiful Vermont morel patch continues.

ForageCast - 5-14-12

Northeastern ForageCast through mid-June!

Spring Foray Photoshoot with Ari and Jenna

© Eve Event Photography

We always enjoy receiving notes from blog readers, workshop participants and fellow mushroom enthusiasts. When local Vermont photographer Monica Donovan contacted us earlier this year asking if she could accompany us on a foray for a personal wildcrafting photography project, we gladly welcomed her along.

Many thanks to Monica for these photographs taken amongst the ramps and morels on an early May evening.

© Eve Event Photography   © Eve Event Photography

© Eve Event Photography

© Eve Event Photography

© Eve Event Photography

© Eve Event Photography

© Eve Event Photography

Content Protected Using Blog Protector By: PcDrome.