I wrote this for Creative Loafing Atlanta, where I am very happy to now be an occasional contributor.
To every thing, there is a season, and right now is the season of morels (and ramps and English peas and on and on). Morels have already been spotted at farmers markets recently and are expected to continue popping up at market and on local restaurant menus for at least a few more weeks.
For those unfamiliar with morels, a little background: morels are edible mushrooms that grow, among other places, in the forests of Appalachia. They have a whitish stem and a cone-shaped top that grows in a honeycomb pattern and ranges in color from blackish-brown to golden-brown. They can also range drastically in size, from about one inch to several inches tall. Morels are hollow inside, unlike their toxic brethren, “false morels,” which contain a cotton ball-like substance inside the stem. There are a number of other mushrooms that somewhat resemble morels, like the Verpa, so do your research before eating anything you pick. (Seriously, if you come across a shroom you aren’t certain is safe, chuck it.)
Inspired by a recent chat with Ryan Smith about the variety of wild plants that can be foraged in Georgia in spring, I set out to look for some morels of my own. And, because I didn’t want to kill myself, or at least suffer a terrible stomachache from eating the wrong thing, I went with a friend, Bob Fernandez, who serves at Hugh Acheson‘s Five and Ten and has been mushrooming for years.
The first thing about mushroom foragers: they are very secretive about their territory. On our afternoon in the woods, Bob and I came across a fellow forager who jokingly shook his walking stick at us for picking the morels that he had come out hoping to bag, and eyed me, a newcomer, suspiciously. So it should come as no surprise that I can’t tell you exactly where we went. But I can give you some hints.
– Bring an experienced mushroomer along. If that’s not possible, have an experienced forager, or even a farmer at your favorite market, take a look at what you gathered before you eat them. Consider referencing a guidebook with photos, too. Like many inedible wild mushrooms, false morels are toxic.
– According to Bob, my personal mushrooming expert, morels typically grow near water, on relatively flat terrain. The local varieties share an affinity for the same types of habitat that privet and sweet gum trees favor, and they eschew the company of pine and other coniferous trees. If you’re familiar with your local state parks, nature centers and walking trails, you can likely think of a place that fits this description. But be discreet; it’s technically against the rules to go mushrooming on public land.
– Mushrooming is messy. To find what you’re looking for, you’ve got to tramp around off the trails, ducking vines and thorns and walking through any number of spider webs dangling invisibly between branches. Ticks are already making their warm-weather comeback and should be accounted for with a hat, lots of bug spray and, yes, the dork move of tucking your pants legs into your socks. Also,wear appropriate footwear for hiking.
– Once you’re out there, move slow. Morels – unlike yellow-orange chanterelles, which proliferate in the summer – are hard to spot against a background of fallen leaves, since they too are brown and wrinkly. Scan the areas around you patiently. It also helps to crouch down and gaze around, since from that angle, you’re more likely to notice a mushroom poking away from the ground at an upward angle.
– If you’re lucky enough to find a few, store morels by laying them out on a flat surface and blanketing them with moist paper towels and eat them as soon as possible. I like to sauté mine with butter, madeira (or any other oxidized wine), shallots and fresh thyme and eat them on toast with a schmear of goat cheese and some melted Parmesan. Don’t cook them ahead of time; they won’t keep well.
The feeling of spotting morels reminded me of childhood Easter egg hunts – the wave of excitement, the self-satisfaction, the pleasure in looking forward to eating something tasty soon. On my little excursion, I found just shy of ten ounces in about an hour. Bring a pocketknife and cut your morels near where the stem meets the ground. Make sure they’re not waterlogged and that they don’t smell like ammonia, as this means they’ve gone bad. Remove any stray slugs and stash them in a cloth pouch to take home. Good luck and happy hunting!