Wednesday, April 22, 2009

More about Morels

See, I got so excited about eating the morels that I forgot to tell you about the experience of finding them, which is half the fun.

For those of you who don’t know—like I didn’t know until about 2000, when Sue and I had “Year of the Mushroom” (more on that some other day)—morel hunting is like an addiction or obsession. Yes, part of it is the joyful surprise of finding them and the pleasure of eating them, but that is preceded by genuine effort, yearning, and sometimes outright frustration. There is desire, work, and then a reward.

Morels only appear in the springtime, and then only for a limited window of time. I’ve heard people describe the timing of their appearance in various ways. “When oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears.” “When the lilacs bloom.” “About the time you’re cutting grass for the first time.” “When the redbuds are blooming.” You know?

And then there are special places to look. Under elms. Under apple trees and other woody members of the rose family. You hear all kinds of stuff. And sometimes a patch that was spectacular one year offers nothing in subsequent years.

Morels have (so far) resisted cultivation—they are a truly wild mushroom, and this is one reason they’re so pricey.

They are perfectly camouflaged on the forest floor, not only because of their coloration, but also in their patterning. When I look for morels, there are all kinds of other things that catch my eye, particularly the many sharply reticulated shadows cast in the leaf litter by small ferns and bedstraw. If there are pinecones about, it gets even harder.

If morels pop up out of your green grassy lawn, then lucky you, ’cause you can see them so easily. But if you are in the woods, you can be standing in a whole patch of them and not see a one.

One of my favorite stories about morels—and I wish I could remember where I read or heard this—is that the tradition of “Easter egg hunting” might have evolved from springtime morel-hunting forays. The parallels do make you think: First, morels emerge only in the spring. Kind of like Jesus and the Resurrection. Second, among people and cultures where mushrooms are valued, morel hunting was a family activity; grandmother carrying the basket, and the little ones, naturally being full of energy as well as closer to the ground and with better eyesight, doing most of the hunting and finding. Third, morels are ornately patterned and, indeed, rather egg-shaped. Fourth, they are hard as the dickens to locate. They really do blend in.

So isn’t that a cool idea? Maybe the first “Easter egg hunt” took place during an exceptionally dry year when the mushrooming was bad. The kids are flopping around, depressed, because there are no morels to be had. The solution? “Here, let’s hard-boil some eggs, decorate them, and have the kids do a little hunt.”

So here is my hunting story from Sunday, April 19.

It was raining, and Sue had her bonsai meeting, so she dropped me off at Gans Creek Wild Area. Again, I’m not going to tell you precisely where I found these, because nobody does that.

I was amazed to see other cars in the parking area. People were hiking in the rain? No: They were mushrooming. One lady was right by her truck, getting ready to leave. She showed me her prizes, cupped in both hands: The gray kind, which she’d found right near the parking area. We chatted a while about mushrooms, you know, like you do . . . And she explained that she’s been trying to teach her dogs (waiting for her in her truck) to sniff out morels. Wouldn’t that be a great trick! Just like those truffle-hunting sows in Europe!

My main goal was hiking and enjoying myself, but after seeing her bounty, morel-lust caught hold of me and I found myself creeping off the trail often to inspect patches of ground that looked promising . . .

Here’s the first non-morel thing I encountered in this way; I got within a few feet of it before I noticed the coppery patterns. Ohmygosh.

The copperhead was just resting there, didn’t move a muscle; that is what they do. They have cryptic coloration. I think this one was having a quiet day, enjoying the rain. Of course (after taking my pictures) I left it alone. You have to admit copperheads are very lovely; they almost look airbrushed.

Then there are all kinds of flowers. At this point the trilliums and wild ginger are blooming brown; the Dutchman’s britches, spring beauties, toothwort, and anemones are still hanging on; pussy’s toes are blooming; jack-in-the-pulpits are just starting; shooting star and bellwort are recognizable but not blooming yet; violets and bird’s-foot violets and rose verbena are in bloom, and several trees are blooming—service berry, wild plum, that sort of stuff. Of course I got sidetracked. This here is blue-eyed Mary:

The mayapples are mostly fully deployed and are thinking about blooming. Remember I told you a few posts ago about how a patch of them looks like Munchkinland? Here’s what I was trying to express:

At Gans, I also get sidetracked by the relics of the old farmstead that remain, particularly the bulb flowers that someone planted decades, perhaps a century ago. Daffodils, jonquils, irises, and so on. There’s a lilac in the parking area that you know someone had planted ages ago. And when I first started hiking at Gans in the eighties, there was a venerable old pear tree that still produced fruit, though it’s gone now. There’s something very cool about how these plants endure long after their planters have moved on, passed on . . .

And yes, it was absolutely raining. It was not particularly cold, at least, but I got all wet and muddy. I did walk rather softly, trying not to mess up the trail too much. So it was on one of my little off-trail forays into what seemed a “likely” spot that I nearly tripped over the first pair:

And this is the addictive part, the “Whoop-whoop and woohoo!” aspect. I’d been out there in the woods messing around for about an hour, and then, Bam! Hooray! I knelt down to say “hello” to them and to get my pocket knife and plastic bag ready, and then, Ta-dahh! I spied another morel about two feet away. Then, looking up, I noticed another small cluster. I scored all forty in one small patch a quarter of the size of our backyard.

Yes, it does feel like an Easter egg hunt. And like I recently explained to a close friend, it reminds me of the kid in me.

After my little extravaganza, I figured I had enough for the two of us, and I didn’t want to be greedy . . . and I do worry sometimes that unbridled harvesting must impact the fungus’s ability to reproduce itself and to disperse . . . so the rest of the hike, for me, was just a hike, no more “hunting” required. Just a smile on my face.

Sue was incredibly pleased with me when I got in the car and showed her my bag of fungal treasures.

And boy, the creek was up. By the way, that’s another morel hunter in the background, across the creek.

. . . But a discussion of the curious interactions among morel hunters will have to be for another post, since I know this one is already “too long” for our ADD culture. So I’ll sign off for now.

(Happy hunting!)

1 comment:

ahistory said...

Great stories about morels, I always enjoy listening to people talk about their hunts and experiences. Though you did give an awfully lot of information. I mean, I don't know where your spot is but I know where you were. I have been walking Gans for over 15 years. However, these days I only hunt it for summer and fall mushrooms. Lots of chanterelles out there in a rainy July.

I must clarify that morels have been cultivated in the lab and in the mushroom factory by a few special growers who have developed patented ways of making them flush. But before you go running out to the nearest Wal-Mart, I might add a few things. I have heard that they don't have that wild flavor. And I tested this when I purchased some I found in a Kroger store several years ago in Chicago. To my disappointment, they were rather bland. Was this from the cultivar or were they just like any other store-bought produce? I don't know, but they weren't worth the nearly 15 bucks I spent for a handful. And besides if you buy them in the store you miss out on the comradery of the hunt and the excitement of finding them which you convey perfectly Julie.

Another blog to add to my favorties, for sure. Keep it up.