Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Morel Majority

Thirty years ago Prego released ads for its spaghetti sauce that featured the catchphrase, "It's in there," by which they meant that each jar had onions, garlic, oregano, basil, olive oil and all the other bits of savory goodness that turned plain old tomato sauce into Tuscan gold.

I thought of that today because when I look at the woods around us, I say to myself, "They're in there," by which I mean the essential ingredient for the best pasta sauce ever: morel mushrooms.

It's that time of year again—the narrow window of springtime opportunity when you can wildcraft morels in the woods. I went out Monday and gathered about two pounds in three hours. While the street value of that many fresh morels in prime condition might be somewhere north of $100 (it's been a dry year, driving up the market), to me they're priceless.

And By the Wildflowers Ye Shall Know Them
While the exact time that this happens can vary widely year to year (all the way from late March to mid-May) you can pretty well count on the fungi poking through the leaf mold sometime after the first appearance of Virginia Bluebells and before the entrée of Sweet William on the natural amphitheater of the forest floor. Because we've been dry in northeast Missouri, I wasn't sure what I'd find. I managed to sneak in about 15 minutes of quality time at a couple a favorite spots near the homestead last Saturday (when I was over at Sandhill anyway for our 40th anniversary shindig), happily gathering half a dozen small mushrooms. They were in there!

Buoyed by that promising sign, I went out in earnest Monday afternoon. Unlike gardening—where comestibles are found in rows, right where you planted them—when you wildcraft mushrooms there are tendencies, but not certainties. Every year has its nuance.

To be sure, I have a few spots where I always find mushrooms (thank the goddess), but many more where I only occasionally find them, and often—if I allow enough time for exploratory roaming—I discover flushes where I have never found them before. Magic! You have to think like a mushroom, emphasizing habitat that matches ideal conditions, the location of which is season specific. In a wet year, you'll find them on higher ground; in a dry year, look for them in the bottoms (that might be ankle deep in water in a wet spring). Mushrooms need plenty of water to fruit, yet do not tolerate standing water. They need to breathe.

Being on the dry side this year, I did most of my perusing of new territory along stretches of river bottom. My persistence was rewarded right at the end (I was already late for dinner), when I stumbled upon a generous patch of morels where I'd never found them before. Voila!

The key when hunting mushrooms is to set your eyes properly. It's a soft focus, Magic Eye kind of technique, where you scan an area to discern the distinctive porous pattern of these pear-shaped beauties:

Color does not help much as morels range from light brown to nearly black, blending in marvelously with the surrounding duff.  Then, when you find one, you slow down and search more diligently—because they're a bit like rats: wherever you find one, you're likely to find 10.

The Triumphant Return of the Successful Hunter
Finding morels is an arcane art, and it took me more than 10 years to get the hang of it. (If it weren't so pleasurable walking among the woodlands in springtime, which transforms even a shutout into a nice afternoon, I probably would not have persisted long enough to have turned the corner.) As no one else at Sandhill has put in as many hours at it, it's not surprising that I tend to have more success than others.

That was the backdrop Monday afternoon. Everyone in the community knew I was ahunting… and hopeful on my behalf. I imagine it might have been like that when the menfolk went out after mastodon in Neanderthal days—with mouthwatering anticipation palpable in the air.

While I was weary from three hours of traipsing through the woods, it was pleasurable to be walking through the Sandhill orchard with the sun sinking in the western sky, and have Darien spy my bulging sack and translate that immediately into news of my success quest. Amidst the buzz, I walked into the kitchen and apportioned my precious cargo into two parts: half for Sandhill and half for Moon Lodge. I displayed Sandhill's in a colander which I plunked into the midst of the front porch dinner scene, accompanied by appreciative oohs and ahhs. It's highly satisfying performing in the role of generous magician.

The next night Ma'ikwe and I hosted a small dinner party, where the morels were the centerpiece of a pasta sauce I concocted with onions, garlic, olives, cooked down in butter, olive oil, tamari, fresh ground black pepper, and black currant wine. Toward the end I added bits of fresh asparagus and chopped green onions. This was slathered over linguine made fresh from whole wheat flour and local eggs. (Who needs Prego?)

When it comes to finding morels, I'm definitely above-average (rather like any child living in Lake Wobegon). However, when it comes to enjoying their consumption, sautéed in butter, I'm clearly in the morel majority.

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