It was hard to see the little, pale, brownish brain heads popping out between the clutter of spring growth and fall’s faded leaves on the forest floor.
There! One! One lonely specimen. More were found on my friend’s lawn (where they sprouted from spores tossed out with last year’s washwater?)
Neatly sliced, and fried in butter, I was treated to my first taste of the yellow (common) morel mushroom. And it was divine. Nutty, meaty, earthy ... so good.
Their exquisite taste combined with exotic looks are appealing. What makes them even more a prize for the wild edibles treasure hunter is their elusive habits. Morels are hard to find. Neither are they commercially farmed because they are intelligent little things that prefer a symbiotic relationship with trees to propagate.
Apparently, morels are both saprotrophic and mycorrhizal. This means they can live by feeding on on dead organic material (saprotrophic) but they also partner with trees in a mutually beneficial relationship (mycorrhizal). Morels and other fungi have a glove of fungal fingers called mycelium. These are an extensive network of underground, travelling, thread-like roots which absorb water and nutrients from the soil and, kindly, shares them with the tree.
Understanding this, it’s easy to see why morel hunters start their search at the base of trees with elm, ash, poplar and apple trees being well-known morel mushroom favourites. The morels won’t appear, however, until moisture and temperature conditions are to their liking. Neither do they emerge in the same spot every year. They may stay underground if they don’t like the conditions.
Despite these persnickety requirements, morels do seem to like disturbed ground and can appear in woodland soils that have been torn up by logging equipment, been flooded or where there’s been a bushfire.
Then, randomly, they can pop up on a person’s lawn. They are brainy beauties and don’t like to be boxed. Hence the mystique surrounding the hunt and collection of these meaty mushrooms.
The complexity of their collection makes eating morels even more of an experience. Having searched for and found them yourself, there is a sense of achievement mixed into the flavour, not unlike the sweetness imbued into a jar of maple syrup when you have tapped the trees, boiled the sap, and bottled the syrup yourself.
Not to mention the confidence of recognizing another wild edible that connects us to generations before who knew how to feed themselves outside of filling a grocery cart.
It also forms a symbiotic relationship between farmer and forager. Farmers have taken lessons from the natural order of growth and the inherited capabilities of the ancient foragers to produce food in abundance. In return, farmers often need to return to their roots in the forest to calm the spirit and recapture the delights of sustenance provided by almost mystical relationships in the soil.
It’s a beautiful balance that culminated this time in a buttery breakfast of wood-grown morels and farm-grown eggs and sausage. ◊