All that rain and the fungus among us - BlueStone Press
December 13, 2019

All that rain and the fungus among us

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Mushroom mania is catching in the Rondout Valley thanks to a very special, very tasty, very fussy and unpredictable gem – the morel (Morchella) mushroom. Not a beauty by any means (unless you consider food that looks like a dirty sponge on a stalk enticing), but with a unique taste that is prized by chefs worldwide.

The weather conditions the last two weeks have been ideal for bumper crops of these treasures. Morels like warm, south-facing slopes when the days are in the 60s and the nights around 40 degrees. The soil temperature should not be below 45 degrees. The day after a warm spring rain (which seems to be every other day) is the perfect time to lace up your hiking boots, apply tick repellant, and head out with your mesh bag in hand and your “mushroom eyes” ready for the hunt. You can practice spotting them by scrolling through images of both gold and black morels on Google so you know what you are looking for. There is a mushroom called a “false morel” that is toxic, so it’s best to attend a lecture or join a professionally led mushroom walk to learn how to identify a true morel before consuming any mushrooms you pick.

Elusive by nature, finding morels is like trying to predict when the first buds of spring will open. They will magically appear in one place one year and then there will by no sign of them the next. Virtually impossible to propagate or grow on a commercial level, morels are highly sought after and bring high prices at the market. However, I can almost guarantee you will never find them fresh in a local market, because the fungi fanatics who forage for these treasures rarely share. Nor will they ever divulge their secret hunting grounds! I believe that is one of the three codes all mushroom hunters follow: Never tell anyone the location you found your booty. Never take all mushrooms from one spot to ensure there will be more for the next year. And always carry your harvest in a mesh bag or basket so the spores will spread as you walk through the woods.

Morels tend to live in and on the edge of forested areas. They prefer loamy soil – well drained, moist with a good mix of clay, decaying matter and calcium. Morels can be found along creeks where elm and sycamore trees grow, or on hillsides and upland where ash and tulip poplar are found. They prefer disturbed ground like logging areas, burn sites, garbage dumps, railroad tracks or old homesteads. Many people swear they grow best in old apple orchards (though this can be a very unhealthy environment if the orchard had been treated at any time with the insecticide lead arsenate because the morels could accumulate toxic levels of lead and arsenic).

Best eaten fresh the day of harvesting, morels can also be dried or frozen to store for later use. If you are lucky enough to have found the mother load, do not eat them in the field. Morels contain thermolabile toxins, so they must always be cooked before eating. It has been reported that even cooked morels can cause stomach upset when consumed with alcohol. When eating any fungus for the first time, it is wise to consume a small amount at first, to minimize any allergic reaction. Also, due to the natural porosity of their caps, morels can contain soil or insects that cannot be easily washed out without crumbling their delicate caps. Soaking them in a bowl of salty water briefly prior to cooking helps remove debris*.

The best way to enjoy morels is to simply sauté them with shallots in butter, and then grind some fresh black pepper and salt. They have a meaty, woodsy, umami flavor that combines well with pasta, eggs, or a light fish. They also naturally pair with two other wild treats – fiddlehead ferns and ramps – or wild leeks.

To learn more about morels and other fungus among us, the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the Marbletown Community Center. Check out their website, midhudsonmyco.org, to join as a member. You will have access to informative lectures, workshops and walks led by experienced fungi folk. Check out their Facebook site to see photos from the more than 2,000 amateur mycologist members in our community sharing images of their successful harvests.

 

*All mushrooms grow from spores, rather than seeds. When you soak your morels, the caps release these spores, so the water will contain thousands of potential future mushrooms. You should pour out the soaking water in an area that would be suitable for them to grow (as mentioned above).

 

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