MAY IS THE MONTH FOR MORELS

If you are a true lover of fungi then for your visual pleasure, you might have been out in the woods already this year seeking the brilliant  Scarlet Cup (Sarcoscypha austriaca) click here or the black as midnight Devil's Urn (Urnula craterium) click here.  For most people that I've met, however, interest in things fungal is closer to their stomach than their brain and for this group the season begins with morels.   May is the month when morels fruit in Ontario woodlands and harvesting these delicacies of nature makes for exciting times for gourmets, wild-edible addicts or just about anybody who likes something tasty and a little different.  Classified in the Kingdom Fungi, morels are not really "mushrooms" in the strict sense but belong to a division called sac fungi and this group is distinctive in both flavour and appearance.

As one who considers a Harvey's hamburger the epitome of culinary delight, I shouldn’t say too much on matters of taste. Also, I have to admit that I don’t really care that much for wild mushrooms and other fungi as food.  Nevertheless, I will agree that morels are a cut above most of the fungal tribe when it comes to flavour.   This of course is not saying too much and to be honest, if the truth be told, most wild edibles that I have tasted, including fungi, don't live up to their billing.    On the other hand, my wife is quick to point out that if I gave up smoking cigars I'd be a much better judge of delicate flavours and also perhaps greet her culinary masterpieces with greater appreciation!

Aficionados get a little carried away sometimes describing nature's little treasures and use words such as "choice", "delicious", "delectable", and "exquisite" to describe the taste of mushrooms in general and morels in particular. Some morels may indeed qualify for such glowing terms of appreciation but for many that I have found the flavour is so mild that "bland" would be a more appropriate evaluation.  So!  If you cook up a batch of morels and wonder what all the fuss is about, you have probably  collected one of the milder varieties.   Don't be dissuaded from further trials as the rich, nutty "delectable" varieties are out there.  At least, so they tell me!

In Ontario, morels fruit in May with some species peaking early and others later in the month. There may be minor seasonal adjustments from year to year depending on the weather but, in general, morels have an admirable reliability factor both for time and location. Where can you find them? No point in asking friends! They will give you very vague or confusing instructions and cheerfully steer you in the wrong direction.  Morels come up year after year in the same spots and secrets like this must be well guarded. When it comes to finding the mother lode for morels, you’re on your own.

Favoured sites for collecting are deciduous woods (maple, poplar, oak, and ash) where morels happily fruit amongst the Trilliums and other spring flowers.  Look for them also on the ground in old orchards or beside spruce stumps in coniferous woods. Sometimes they are found in abundance on the banks of rivers or sprout from the ground after forest fires. In short - "morels are where you find them".

You can't just stroll into a wood and expect to trip over morels.  If it was that easy everybody would do it.  At first, try an open wood with relatively thin ground cover.  Just walk slowly through the wood scanning the ground ahead.  A walking stick or old ski pole (I knew they would be good for something) helps to turn aside the ground cover plants and saves the back from wear and tear.  At a pinch the ski pole can be used to ward off aggresive wild life or protect your territory from inconsiderate interlopers if you strike the "lode".   The first morel is the hardest to find but things get better as you develop the hunter’s "eye".   Don't worry about overpicking.  The morel is just the fruitbody of the fungus, so it’s just like picking apples from a tree.  The morel fruitbody is supplied by miles of tiny fungal filaments called hyphae living in the forest soil.  These filaments can persist in forest soils for generations.  Besides, there is a lot of forest in Ontario and enough morels will be missed to take care of long term survival. If morels eventually disappear from our fair province it won't be picking the fruits that caused it!

Many years ago, when the Dutch Elm Disease was ravishing the land, morels seemed more abundant.  I recall a colleague bringing in a 6 qt. basket of morels gathered on his city lot (large one!) where he had a number of dying elm trees.  He has not collected any morels on his lot since that time, so there seems to be a vital relationship between elms and morels.  Unfortunately, in these days of "useful" research, there seems little likelihood that anyone will have the money or take the time to solve this interesting biological problem.  It's obviously much more important to spend out research dollars and learn to grow tomatoes on Mars.  Incidently, morels have been grown in "laboratory " conditions but the costs are so high and the production so low that it is not even close to an economic proposition.

There are several different species of morels. A. the common or Yellow Morel , Morchella esculenta(click here), has a tan to pale yellow-brown, somewhat rounded, honeycombed head. B. the Black Morel, Morchella elata (click here),  is smaller with a very dark, conical head.   Both species are easy to recognize and there is little likelihood of errors in identification.  C. the Half-Free Morel, Mitrophora semilibera click here, is similar to the two common morels but is distinguished by elongate, shallow pits and by the fact that the base of the head is somewhat flared, skirt-like and free from the stalk.  t  D. Ptychoverpa bohemica, or Wrinkled Thimble Cap also known as Verpa bohemica is a member of the false morel group - click here.    It should b treated with respect and a little suspicion as it causes stomach upsets in some people (see below for False Morels).  

If you don't have any success collecting in Ontario, and have a few days vacation coming your way, take a trip to Michigan. A comfortable day's drive away, more or less due west as the crow flies Michigan IS MOREL LAND.  In Michigan, they have annual morel hunts with prizes going to the biggest collections.  Official reports claim that you can collect morels by the bushel!  However, remember that these are the same people who use words like delicious, delectable, exquisite, fantastic to describe morel flavours.      From the stories I hear, I wouldn't be surprised either if the streets were paved with gold.  The town of Mesick (whimsical choice of names) is on Highway M115 and claims to be the "mushroom" capital of the world.   In Michigan they call morels "mushrooms" but what do they know?    During your visit get into the spirit of things and bed down in the "Mushroom Cap Motel".  Along the highway, there are road signs indicating where you can buy morels by the pound.  Why morels should prefer Michigan to Ontario is not clear to me.  Maybe they heard about the GST!   Also, when it comes to the best picking spots remember that the locals have the edge.   So you may not find as many as you hoped and be obliged to buy a pound or so from a roadside stall to fill your quota.   Do not grieve, you have all the way back to Ontario to fabricate a wild and woolly story about the "hunt".  If you are a fisherman you should find this part easy.  One hint.  Don't mention the words "magic mushrooms" as you go through customs.  Customs agents are not noted for their sense of humour.

Another point.  Morels are hollow and there are many little creepy crawlies such as millipedes that seem to know this already and make very comfortable homes inside.   So, split a morel down the middle before consigning to the pot, and allow your fellow diners to escape to the compost pile with the discards.  Alternatively, a little animal protein never did anyone any harm.   Some people like their morels raw or they hardly touch the hot fat in the panpan.  I like them well frizzled in butter.  This very effectively kills the stray wildlife.   There are few things that kill the appetite more quickly than little beasties limping off the plate.

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BEWARE THE FALSE MORELS

The false morels are a group of fungi related to the true morels which fruit in the same places at about the same time. In false morels the fruitbodies are wrinkled rather than honeycombed. Ptychoverpa bohemica (click here) has irregular wrinkles running more or less vertically down the brown head and has a pale tan stalk.  This species has caused gastero-intestinal problems for a number of people who have consumed it and should be avoided.

The real killer, however, and the best known of the false morels is Gyromitra esculenta (click here). The head of this species has a brain-like appearance. The support stalk is short and stout. The species name, esculenta, is misleading and implies it is edible and good. Read on!

Over the years hundreds of people have died after eating Gyromitra esculenta. At one time in Europe, 100,000 kilos of false morels were sold annually at the local markets. Eventually, so many people died or suffered from Gyromitra poisoning that their sale was officially banned. Despite the well documented risks, some people continue to eat Gyromitra regularly and regard it as a highly prized edible. Most who consume it enjoy it and suffer no ill effects. A person may have eaten it many times with no effects and then die an unpleasant and lingering death. Why so!

False morels contain a toxin called gyromitrin. This toxin is coverted to a chemical called mono methyl hydrazine or MMH (a recognized rocket fuel!) which is toxic. MMH is water soluble with a low boiling point and volatilizes off below 90oC. So, in theory, if you parboil morels, the toxin will be discarded with the water or evaporate during cooking (breath shallow if you’re the cook!). Nevertheless, many people have died following ingestion of false morels. So much for theory!

Research, however, revealed an interesting relationship between the dose taken and the response of the consumer. With most toxins there is a direct relationship between the dose and the severity of the symptoms. i.e. the more you take the sicker you get. In the case of gyromitrin, however, this type of dose/response is not found. With a little toxin no symptoms are noted, increasing the dose has no apparent ill effects until you cross the dose threshhold. No early warning! Cross this threshold and you're very sick or dead. Different people have different thresholds and the individual threshold may vary with other factors such as age and state of health. Two people could sit down to a meal of false morels. One would recall the meal as a magnificent feast and the other might be buried within the week. Great plot for an Agatha Christie novel!  (I know!  She did it already but as I recall  she chose the wrong mushroom!)  So! The best advice for False Morels is leave them alone! It is reported that false morels on the Pacific coast don't contain gyromitrin but I don't recommend putting this to the test. The following paragraph on gyromitrin poisoning explains my concerns.

Symptoms are delayed and nothing untoward may be experienced for 4-8 hours after ingestion. Early symptoms are stomach cramps accompanied by vomiting, watery and/or bloody diarrhea, weakness, lassitude and severe headaches. This is followed by loss of balance, jaundice (as the liver deteriorates), and then in some cases, convulsions, with the victims eventually becoming comatose and dying.  The risks outweigh the rewards by a long way!

One final point that gives us cause to ponder on false morels and our general well being. There is evidence that monomethyl hydrazine increases the incidence of tumours in experimental animals.  Thus, more insidious long-term effects of false morels cannot be too quickly discounted.

P.S.  Remember!   Even if you don't find a single morel you've spent a happy hour or two wandering around 'by meadow, grove and stream' as William Wordsworth so eloquently phrased it.   Who could ask for more?    Well, maybe old Omar Khayam went one better with 'a loaf of bread, a flask of wine, and thou beside me singing in the wilderness' !!!  Sounds good to me!

And, for all the morel and mushroom hunters in the land, let this be your mantra

'tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new'

                                                                       John Milton