There are Mushrooms and There are Morels

I’d heard people talk excitedly about hunting ‘morels,’ but never shared that experience. The only mushrooms I gather and eat are the shiitake we grow on logs here at the farm. When Holly, one of our farm workers, approached me in the orchard, and said, “What are those mushrooms under the trees?” I immediately went over to look.

Holly had been straightening out the irrigation drip lines, pulling them close to the trunks in the tree rows, so that when we mow they won’t get snagged. I had been weeding around young trees, putting cardboard down to suppress the weeds, and covering the cardboard with bark mulch. I followed Holly down one of the rows as she looked for a mushroom to show me. “Morels,” I said, instinctively, peering under the canopy of a large tree. I recognized the morels without really knowing I was familiar with them.

When I returned to the house I looked up morels, just to be sure. One photograph was all that was required. Sure enough, morels love growing under old apple trees. Morels have a distinctive shape, eerily similar to brain coral in surface, with elfin-like rounded turrets that poke up out of the ground, leaning this way and that.

 Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Morels particularly like apple trees, poplar, and elm, but can be found just about anywhere. The challenge is to spot them. Sometimes you have to walk by a site several times, but once you notice one, you will usually see many more. Morels like days of sixty degrees and nights of forty degrees, and, of course, moisture — just the conditions we’ve had all spring. So perhaps we have had morels before, but so few that I didn’t notice. This is a bumper year for morels, they are calling out to be harvested. Otherwise, the mushrooms will dry up in a few days, resembling dark rice paper that will melt back into the ground. It did occur to me that I probably shouldn't be writing this blog—morel seekers guard their favorite gathering locations with religious fervor!

When I decided to collect the morels, I read about the best way to harvest them. Some aficionados claim that you should cut them just at ground level; others, that pulling with just a slight tug releases the mushroom with a little knob covered in dirt. The ones who favor cutting say that plucking may damage the mycelia threads and reduce future harvests. I decided to try both techniques. I went back to the orchard with a basket and pocket knife. Pulling them seemed so easy, as if they simply released willingly into your hand. It didn’t feel like I was doing any damage. Cutting them off is neat and clean, but left a hole in the hollow stem open to the air. After trying both approaches, I found myself preferring the pluck method, and harvested enough for lunch.

Blase and the day’s workers, Kevin, Mike, and Holly, were already in the kitchen. I sliced up the morels and added a few shiitake. In a heavy frying pan, I poured a little olive oil and a generous tad of butter. When the pan was hot and the butter melted, in went the mushrooms. While they were cooking, I added a little salt, a little rice bran oil with a very small amount of shoyu, and balsamic vinegar. We shared the exquisite, rich taste. I couldn’t imagine they would ever taste this good again. Two days later, my daughter, Ariel, and I went hunting, and brought home another basket full.  I cooked them again, and they were scrumptious.

 Morels with a couple of small shiitake.

Morels with a couple of small shiitake.