By Ester O’Neill
It all started one rainy spring about ten years ago. It was the kind of rainy spring that, luckily, only comes along once in a while: the rain was constant and clouds in the valley were heavy and socked-in looking like they had no plans of leaving any time soon. The only good things to come out of such wet conditions are mushrooms. And after too many days stuck inside I convinced myself I’d become a mushroom foraging expert. Armed with two field guides from the library, a knife and a basket I set out in my rain gear to see what could be found. Within no time I had “mushroom eyes” (much like when you buy a new car only to realize that everyone on the highway drives the same car) and my basket was filled with a variety of specimens. That evening I laid them out on paper towel and waxed paper to collect spore samples and set out to identify them.
What I realized that foggy spring night is that all of the mushrooms I brought home were either perfectly edible or absolutely deadly, with such subtle differences between either option that one must have studied mushrooms for a lifetime to determine which was which. Crushed and disheartened I tossed the fruits of my labour and hung up my mushrooming basket for a decade. But the dream of finding my own secret mushroom patch never left me.
Then last spring it happened. I like to think it was fate, but more likely it was the rain. While wandering trails at sunset somewhere near Three Stage (a mushroomer never reveals their secret stash) my neglected mushroom eyes recovered themselves and a patch of morels revealed themselves to me.
The mighty morel is a favourite among springtime mushroom collectors. Morels fruit in May (earlier or later depending on region and weather) and come up in the same spot year after year. So once you find a patch, it’s yours for life. And they are one of the few relatively easy mushrooms to identify. The two most prominent species found in spring are the common morel, recognized by its tan to pale-yellow brown rounded honeycombed head, and the black morel which is dark grey and slightly more conical. Avoid false morels, which are wrinkled instead of honeycombed and can cause stomach upsets.
To find your own morel mother lode head to the woods, particularly deciduous (oak, ash, maple, poplar) woods and look among the trilliums and other spring wildflowers. Standing between 5 and 10 centimetres high, morels are among the hardest mushrooms to find because they like to hide under leaves and other ground cover. Scan the ground ahead of you using a walking stick to turn over leaves, especially at tree bases. Once you have spotted one, your mushroom eye will kick in and with luck they will magically reveal themselves to you in abundance. Don’t worry about overpicking. Morels are the fruit of a much more complex and huge fungi growing under the soil that has little chance of disappearing for generations and generations.
Before cooking up your delectable find, consult with someone that knows for sure these are morels. Then, once confirmed, either soak morels in water or cut them in half to clean them and search for creepy crawlies that love to hide in the holes. While a little extra protein is not a bad thing, I prefer my mushrooms worm-free. A simple sauté in butter reveals the nutty flavour of the morel but more ambitious concoctions can prove delicious too. I once enjoyed them stuffed with foie gras, battered and then deep-fried. A little over the top perhaps, but for such a fleeting springtime treat why not be over the top about it? Here’s to finding your own mushroom eyes….
And here’s a little vid to help you determine between false morels and the real deal: