When the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear

May 14, 2009

It’s time to hunt for morels, according to one Internet article I read this week.  In Leeds that was the interval from May 5th to May 13th, and yes, there were some to be had in local forests at that time.

Another blog quoted an unnamed newspaper reporter on the subject of finding the tasty fungi.  The article suggested that the season begins in mid-April in central U.S.A. and moves north at a rate of 100 miles per week.  Apparently it continues until three consecutive 80-degree days occur.  I love the author’s certainty, but when he suggested there was little point in hunting for morels anywhere except around the stumps of recently-dead elm trees, I decided to see if this was hot air or not.  Off I went to check out elm stumps.  To my surprise, I had to conclude the guy is right.  I came up with three new picking sites in a morning’s search.

Many bloggers this year are gushing about huge hauls of morels.  Around Forfar the harvest so far has been sparse, though steady, with quite a few small blacks, but not many of the larger commons.  One heavy rain and strong southern wind encouraged quite a few commons to peek out of their leaf and grass cover, though, and that evening Bet and I found a hatful where I hadn’t seen any a few hours before.  Maybe it was the diffuse evening light which made spotting easier.  Common morels are very well concealed at the best of times, and the temptation after you find one is to peel away layers of leaves and grass in case there are more which have not quite emerged, but therein lies madness.  Morels only grow where they want.

Because pickings have been too slim to justify the effort as food-production, I’ve decided to separate the sport of morel hunting from the enjoyment of processing food for the table.  The challenge of picking the pattern of the sponge-like fungus out of the other cover on the forest floor is fun in itself.  It’s like those eye-twister games they run in The Citizen, or those Where’s Waldo? books.

It’s funny how the mind gets trained to find them.  It’s often one’s peripheral vision that gives the first indication of the presence of a prize.  Then it takes some methodical searching to track down the culprit. It’s quite like bass fishing, actually, and I think I’m getting better at it.

A cautionary note from a woman in Burbank, California appeared in a blog.  She commented that she almost died after eating a skillet-full of sautéed morels and washing them down with beer.  According to her, excessive consumption of morels and alcohol can create a compound which dissolves a membrane which protects the central nervous system.   She claimed that her neurologist found the antidote (saline drip with B vitamins) in an old mushroom book.

The vast majority of blog posts, however, celebrate the great meals to be had from fresh and dried morels, so I suspect their benefits outweigh the risks.  It might be a good idea not to drink alcohol during the meal, though, and of course one must never eat morels raw, or allow pets to consume them.

Last year we discovered the new gas range does a great job drying halved fruits even though it does not have a pilot flame.  The convection fan and the light are perfect to dry tray after tray of the fungi.

From last year’s bumper harvest Bet froze some of the dried morels in paper bags, and stored the others in similar bags in a basket on the bookshelves.  The room-temperature packages preserved considerably more flavour than the frozen, dried product.

We’re still hoping for a major morel hatch, but the oak leaves are now much larger than a squirrel’s ear, so time may be running out for this year.  Keep an eye on the ground around dead elms, though.

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