Sunday, April 29, 2012

Be Mindful of Morels

Be Mindful of Morels
Few fungi arouse my interest enough for me to set my alarm for 4.45 am and then head out into the pouring rain, but morels do! Their flavour is fungoid yet unique, their texture firm with a good bite, and their appearance fascinating. Perhaps it's the unique combination of that flavour and appearance, combined with the fact that they can be so hard to track down that makes them so much fun to search for. Apart from truffles, they offer a challenge like no other fungi..
    By watching this short video made on a very windy 26th April (2012) you can readily see the kind of habitat they like to grow in; in this case in well draining very sandy loose soil with underlying chalk. The situation is also very exposed. Morels are fussy about habitat but also adaptable, also being found in woodland and other more open places on similar soil types.

After walking for 30 minutes in driving rain whilst finding nothing, I was starting to become quite despondent. Then I saw one. Only a small one, but one glorious one more than nothing. This was the advanced guard leading to the Big Mumma at the centre! In fact the morel below is the biggest I've had the pleasure to find.

This is the gorgeous morel (Morchella esculenta) near to where it was growing next to two far more typically sized examples, both about 2 inches high.

Sometimes, when these fungi are found on paths or wood chip in flowerbeds, they can be easily spotted. On the other hand, in more wild locations, they are easily overlooked. Can you spot the two morels in the picture below?

Sometimes these playful sprites like to hide, such as under the leaves of this dandelion plant, below.

Morels, like some other fungi too, yet even more so, force you to be incredibly mindful, completely attentive to the present moment. Being in such a state of mind is the only way to successfully find them in large quantities. Morel foraging has no time for speed, no rushing about, no mental distraction; only the sound of your breath, your beating heart, wind, rain, and the sound of your foot steps compete for your attention without overwhelming the senses and throwing you out of focus and off course.

In the South East of England I usually find morels around the beginning of May. Often it can be quite warm. If that's the case I string them up to dry. Given how wet and damp it is, I've had to dry them in my food dehydrator this year - after washing very well to remove grit and the inevitable home-making woodlice.
Here they are on the dehydrator tray ready for drying; a gratuitous picture, like most of these here, simply because I think they look so fascinating, beautiful even.

Apart from cooking them in a little olive oil with salt, plenty of freshly ground pepper, chopped garlic and a dash of lemon juice, I also like to preserve them in oil. Below, you can see morels from this year dried in a jar, fresh morels behind, and last year's morels (gathered in the same location) preserved in oil.

To preserve in oil, cut off and discard the very bottom with all its grit and soil, wash very well, slice length ways, wash again, and lay out on a towel for half an hour. Then lay some of them in a single layer on a bed of salt. Cover that layer with salt and lay some more on top. Repeat this process until they are all laid out and completely covered with salt. Leave overnight. The next day remove them from the salt, shaking off any excess. Place in a jar and pour over your favourite oil, prodding and gently stirring to release any air pockets. Cook before use.

An Experiment
Although I've been foraging for fungi since 1990, it wasn't until 7 years ago that I found my first morels; and believe me, that wasn't for want of trying. I'd read all the books, followed all the advice, but still always drew a blank. Then, 7 years ago, I was treating a minor health condition with Chinese herbs. These required soaking and boiling in water for 30 minutes. Of the week's supply of 7 packets of dried herbs, when it came to boiling them, I completely forgot all about it, let the pan boil dry and incinerated them. Burnt to a cinder they were. In the garden at the time there was a large water butt full of soil. I tipped the burnt Chinese herbs on the bare soil, tossing over a little earth. Exactly a year later, growing from that same soil were the largest colony of healthy looking morels I'd ever seen: 7 in total. Yes, 7 seemed to be a key component of this good fortune. Lucky 7!

This year then, I've decided on a simple, foolish, naive, ludicrously optimistic experiment, that is, I'm going to try and deliberately cultivate morels by scattering the off-cuts from this year's finds in a pot of soil. To mimic the conditions they are said to prefer, I'm going to mix in some very chalky soil I found beneath an up turned tree, some coarse sand, and some wood ash. Morels are said to favour recently burnt forest clearings, hence the ash. Wish me, wish them, luck. I shall report back the results in a year's time.

Remember: Be mindful of morels! Happy hunting!!.