Many kinds of madness peak in March including those of March hares, March basketball fans, and March morel hunters. My own passion is tipped towards springtime fungus, and this year I had only to look in my own backyard to get excited.
My parents moved into this house just exactly 50 years ago, and over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in the back yard. Lots of mushrooms have erupted, of many different kinds, but all of them were either unpalatable or downright poisonous. So it was a real surprise to see these gems yesterday, in an area I had cleared last fall:
These are Gray Morels, one of the most delicious North American fungi. Morels of the same type also appear in Yellow and Golden varieties but are likely all the same species, Morchella esculenta, also called Morchella deliciosa; the taxonomy is confusing, however, and the variation in overall shape and coloration sufficient to still engender considerable dispute between academic experts. In this small bloom, surely all from the same mycelium and all the same maturity, a few of the heads were pewter gray while others were various shades of pale to golden yellow and others were tan. The good news is that regardless of formal name, they are all equally delicious.
I don’t advocate that amateurs eat their own wild-gathered mushrooms; read the Warning below. Many people including me do so, but only when we are certain that we know what we’ve got. With Gray morels, the 3-step identification is nearly foolproof. First, the appearance of the pileus (cap) is distinctive, with deep crenellations. Second, as can be seen in the sectioned specimen below, the pileus is adherent to the stipe (stem) throughout its length; the pilei of morels do not expand. And finally, when cut open lengthwise the core is hollow. Meet those criteria, and you’ve likely got yourself a treat.
But why did these mushrooms just suddenly appear? The answer is that they’ve been here all along, likely for many years, but living only underground. Morels have an unusual life cycle, which includes a unique structure called a sclerotium that serves as an energy reservoir. So long as there is adequate food available, the morel mycelium remains underground while spreading as far as it can and building up its energy reserves. When the mycelium’s food supply is exhausted, and only then, the sclerotium is stimulated to develop another structure called a primordium which in turn may – if conditions are just right – form the fruiting body which we see above ground. Then, as with other mushrooms, spores are generated and the organism disperses itself outward, looking for a new food supply.
In cleaning up the back yard for landscaping, I ripped out the stump of a date palm that had been cut down 20 or so years ago. The stump was not only ugly, it had become home to one of the infinite number of Argentine ant colonies that live in the neighborhood, actually part of one huge supercolony that stretches for nearly six hundred miles along western California. The stump had to go, as did the ants; they are relentless, and invade the house several times a year from their various redoubts.
The stump had an extensive root system, also filled with ants, and so those came out too. I did notice a rich mycelium in the dirt as I dug up the roots, but paid it little mind. Apparently that was where the morel was hiding, as the bloom was along a concrete fence bolster near where a root had been. After turning it over I had covered the area in several layers of cardboard to keep down weeds, and the slight gap between the cardboard and the concrete was the only available path to air. This combination of food restriction, moisture trapped under the cardboard during a wet winter, and sudden warmth apparently triggered the bloom. With morels, it is always good to be lucky.
In the picture of harvested morels above, the dark mass at the lower end of the stipe is an active growing part of the organism. They aren’t tasty, and should be removed. What they are good for is establishing a new mycelium. I’ll cut these into strips and insert them into holes drilled into some logs I removed from another palm. The logs in turn will be buried under a thin layer of soil and some day, perhaps long after I am gone, these clones will run out of food and bloom with tasty treats for someone else. A little bit of anonymous pay-it-forward and, best of all, I’ll take my reward now by eating the morels in hand.
All wild mushrooms should be cooked before consumption. It vastly improves flavor and texture, as well as breaking down the sometimes bothersome toxins in certain edible species. (Cooking does not turn poisonous mushrooms into edible ones, however; read the Warning.) Here are a couple of morels, washed and diced, being sautéed in butter. Three to five minutes and what was rubbery and bland becomes tender and absolutely scrumptious, a wild flavor and aroma difficult to describe, wood and smoke and meat and rum and vanilla and a whole lot of other complex and unique flavors. A little goes a long way and they are rare so I use them sparingly, although I have sat down to a full plate a couple of times when I stumbled upon a large supply in the woods. Heavenly, and memorable.
Three eggs, beaten with a dollop of milk, were added to the pan and lightly tossed until cooked through. Finished with just a sprinkling of kosher salt and nothing more, it is a simple but stunning meal.