Monday, May 2, 2011

The Morel of the Story

I got home just in time.

I arrived about 12:15 on Saturday and everyone (including this season's interns, Michael & Sofi) was eating lunch. After unloading my luggage and traveling paraphernalia, I said hello to everyone (I'd been on the road for over a month), had a glass of milk, and put on my boots. By 1:15 I was in the woods hunting for wild mushrooms. While about 25% of what I found were past peak, I found a number of prime specimens and my three-hour stroll netted a tad over three pounds of morels. Whew! I wasn't too late.

While there are occasional aberrations, in northeast Missouri morels pop up only in a fairly
tight 10-day window starting in late April and drifting into the first week of May. Though I was arriving at the early end of when the season typically occurs, there is enough uncertainty about timing—due to the vagaries of moisture and temperature (fungi like it wet and warm)—that I was nervous. I hate missing the morels. [For more of my personal journey with morels see my blog of May 7, 2008, The Morel Imperative.]

At Sandhill Farm we do mushrooms two ways: a) we cultivate shiitakes on 42-inch sections of oak logs, stacked to form a serpentine picket fence under a shady maple grove; and b) we hunt morels during their ephemeral season of manifestation. As it happened, on Saturday we harvested both, and our fungal cup runneth over. While cultivating shiitakes is essentially about technique, teasing morels out of the woods is more of an art form. Think of them as the yin and the yang of mycological farming. Most of the work with shiitakes is in the set up; most of the work with morels is in the walking and developing the magic eye needed to discern the little darlings as they peek out of the leaf mold or from underneath a mayapple canopy. While you can find one boldly out in the open from time to time, most fruits are shy, requiring a technique where you peruse the same ground from different angles when you're in suitable habitat.

While there are patterns to look for (medium to full-sized silver maples are indicator trees), there is no guarantee where they'll appear. Spots can produce steadily for years and then inexplicably go dry; certain stretches can be a bonanza one year and then never again. Every so often you'll encounter a singular morel in a location you've never found one in before and with no apparent second fruit within 100 feet. Mostly though, if you find one mushroom you're as likely to find ten. The mycelium propagates underground (following some mysterious biological impulse) and it's highly likely that if conditions are right for one fruit that the same rootstock will produce more nearby. Thus, whenever I encounter one morel, I slow down to one-quarter speed to look more carefully for buddies. They're almost always out there, if you can just tease them out.

My triumph of this season was walking through a patch of woods where I'd had some consistent luck in the past, yet was reporting no joy on this occasion. I was almost through and about to give up when I noticed that the downed tree I was about to step over (as I attempted to effect my exit from the copse) was a maple. Walking back to the base on instinct, I discovered a flush of morels ringing the edge of the root ball disturbance. Jackpot! Noticing two additional modest maples veering in a direction I hadn't walked (how had I missed those moments before?), I followed the trail. With one morel in sight of the next, I collected about 40 mushrooms before the vein petered out. It's humbling to reflect on how close I was to walking right by and missing the whole mess.

Today is my day in the kitchen, where I'll get the opportunity to make pasta (from eggs laid by our chickens and from flour ground this afternoon from our wheat), flavored with a sauce made by cooking down my precious morels in butter and olive oil, seasoned with onions, garlic, sage, and homemade black currant wine. Don't you wish you could come to dinner?

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