Spring Harvest: Morels
Springtime brings many delicious, blink-and-you-might-miss-it harvests that require a little bit of legwork to enjoy. Along with ramps and fiddlehead ferns, morel mushrooms tempt many an intrepid cook or enthusiastic forager in to the woods with a taste for the season.
In another addition to Ecocentric Blog’s terrific on-going column “Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It,” Katie Sweetman discusses morels’ long history, key tips for finding them in the wild and the necessity of cooking them (unless you like a little toxic tummy ache).
As the natural world slowly creeps back to life after the vernal equinox, so does morel season in the US. Just spotting them, popping up like spongy cones amongst the leaf litter, is the gourmet equivalent of striking gold. Difficult to cultivate and highly delicious, morels are so rare they command upwards of $30 a pound, depending on the market. But if you’re lucky enough to live in morel country, you can forage this mushroom-y delicacy for free.
A Brief History
Morels, or Morchella, have been around since the dinosaurs and don’t look that different from their prehistoric ancestors. Study of their DNA has revealed that they have evolved little in the last 100 million years. Other than that, not much is known about their history and relationship to human tastes, which seems fitting for something foraged in the wild. Someone very long ago must have been fairly intrepid to discover that morels made for a delicious springtime feast. They also discovered, probably through trial and error, that — like their spring-y brethren, the fiddlehead — they must be cooked as they can be poisonous when raw.
Morels can be found all over the northern hemisphere in locations where there are deciduous forests and temperate climate so long as the weather isn’t too dry or too swampy. People hunt them in Europe, America and Canada. The mushroom is abundant in the northern midwest states and can be found as far north as Alaska under the right conditions.
There are at least 50 different varieties of Morchella around the world, with North America home to 19 of them. The most common species are the common morel or true morel (Morchella esculenta), the black morel (M. elata) and the white morel (M. deliciosa).
- Morels are referred to as “true” morels, which I thought was a bit weird until I learned that there are “false” morels. Mind you they look nothing like true morels, but apparently look enough to fool a less informed forager. You’ll want to avoid false morels as they are toxic. And a good way to distinguish the two is that true morels are hollow inside while false ones are not.
- The darker the morel, the more intense flavor. Or so they say.
- Humans are one of the few species who eat morels. One of the others are slugs.
- Morels are related to truffles. They are both from the phylum Ascomycota, which differs from the common button mushroom so readily available in supermarkets.
This article originally appeared on EcocentricBlog.org. It is partially posted here with permission from the author.
Do you forage for morels? What’s your favorite recipe for them?
Katie Sweetman is a graphic designer and writer at GRACE. She is the designer behind projects such as Cultivating the Web: High Tech Tools for a Sustainable Food Movement and Edible Brooklyn. Originally from Washington, DC, she now lives in Brooklyn. (from Ecocentric Blog)
Photo Credit: A Slice of Earthly Delight
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