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The finest fungus among us - and how to find it.

They are secretive folks who travel silent woodland paths alone. Their eyesight is reputed to rival that of the soaring hawk. In early spring, they venture into forests and woodlots to check on emerging poplar and oak leaves. They search the countryside for abandoned orchards, dead elm trees, and stands of second- and third-growth hardwoods. They are apt to disappear into damp, shady coves or traipse across sun-splashed ridges after a warm spring rain. Rarely do they invite company along on these arcane forays. Like prospectors of old, they seek a treasure that many consider as valuable as golden nuggets. They are collectors, and they search high and low for the mother lode of wild edibles-the morel mushroom.

Mushroom collectors seek morels more than they do all other species because the morel is deemed by many to be the most delicious of all wild fungi and also the safest. In most regions of the U.S., the fruiting season for morels peaks long before the truly harmful mushrooms begin to emerge.

Morels are native to deciduous forests worldwide. In the U.S., strongholds for the species include the Appalachians, Rocky Mountains, and the northern-tier states, and they are commonly found in some California mountainous regions and especially in the rainy areas of the Pacific Northwest.

Barring drastic changes in the environment, this treasured wild edible grows in the same locations-off and on-year after year. Experienced morel seekers know that the secret for finding a mess of morels is to locate a number of patches through information shared by good friends or, as is usually the case, extensive woodland exploration spread out over several years.

Essentially, the true morel family has five members. The most commonly sought are the black morel (Morchella angusticeps), the sponge mushroom (Morchella esculenta), and the thick-footed morel (Morchella crassipes), which can grow to 12 inches or more in height.

Of the three major species, black morels are the earliest to fruit. In southern highland regions, they appear beneath stands of large poplar trees about the same time the first green leafing shows near the ridgelines-usually about the first week of April or earlier if a warming trend occurs in late March. The blacks are also the most common morel found in North American conifer growths and are abundant in the upper Great Lakes region and throughout the forested areas of the Rocky Mountains. This species often fruits in great quantities in the year following a forest fire.

The so-called sponge mushroom fruits a week or more later than the black variety and has a more diverse habitat preference. It grows in beech, maple, and oak forest, and apple orchards are exceptionally prime locations. A morel collector in Kentucky found a half bushel of sponge mushrooms growing in the sawdust of an apple tree cut the autumn before. A single dead elm tree may also produce an excellent crop.

The thick-footed variety is usually the latest to emerge. It is somewhat common in the Ohio River drainage but occurs in all oak, beech, and maple forestlands as well as under elm and ash trees growing in low-ground spots. The largest of the morels, thick footed specimens can attain heights of a foot, and even larger ones have been found in stream valleys in Oregon.

SAFETY RULES

A basic safety requirement for all collectors of wild fungi is absolute identification. The Mushroom Hunter's Field Guide by Dr. Alexander H. Smith (University of Michigan Press) is considered an excellent resource. However, the most reliable method is to accompany an experienced collector.

Eating mushrooms can be tricky business. Although the morel is considered among the safest of all wild fungi for human consumption, in rare incidents it has caused some distress. As far as is known, however, no fatalities have ever been attributed to consuming the morel. A good rule to follow when eating any mushroom for the first time is to take small bites, then wait a few minutes to see if you have any kind of physical reaction. It's good policy to avoid gorging on any species until it is known whether your digestive system can handle it.

A standard guide followed by some experienced mushroom collectors is to pick only one species at a time. Although more than one species can be readily identified by some, a gastronomical problem may result when two kinds are prepared together.

Only fresh-looking morels should be collected. Discard any that appear dried up or nibbled on. Most experts agree that one should never eat a raw, wild mushroom. Cooking breaks down possible poisons and allergens.

FIRST MORELS

In hilly regions, spring's first morels will usually be found in early April about 30 yards from the crest of a ridge that faces the morning sun. Look for a flat area or the head of a ravine. The forest floor beneath a stand of large poplars is an ideal place. Best success comes to those who position themselves so the sun shines over their shoulder onto the area being searched -the same rule as in photography.

Later in April and on into mid-May, morels are found in the upper Great Lakes regions in abundance-so much so that morel festivals are held in several communities.

CULINARY TRICKS

Although many enthusiasts use a plastic bread sack, experienced collectors never use anything except a well ventilated basket. Wild mushrooms decay easily, and the damp, warm conditions created in airtight containers can be devastating to flavor and condition in no time at all. Sometimes referred to as dry-land fish," morels should be treated like fish, which means keep them cool and get them into a frying pan as quickly as possible to preserve the best flavor.

Some purists never wash the morel before cooking. Others, concerned about insects, slugs, and other creatures, put the mushrooms in the refrigerator for a few hours to soak in a saltwater bath composed of two tablespoons of salt per quart of water. It's best, though, to pick the morel clean to begin with.

Considered the most delicious of all wild mushrooms that grow in the U.S., morels fit well into any recipe that calls for mushrooms. Some collectors say that splitting them down the middle and sauteing them in creamery butter for three minutes to a side is the finest of all ways to utilize this spring edible. Morels are also superb when served over a sizzling steak and delightful when dipped in your favorite fish-frying batter and deep-fried until they are a golden brown.

If you are fortunate enough to find more of these woodland nuggets than can be consumed immediately, you can preserve the surplus by canning or freezing for future use. To can morels, treat them as you would any non-acidic vegetable.

When freezing them, boil the mushrooms in a small amount of water until their own juices cover them. Cool, then pack in freezer containers and store at a temperature of zero or lower. Frozen mushrooms should be consumed within three months.

MUSHROOM ETHICS

Whether you are collecting on public or privately owned forestlands, a few commonsense land-usage rules apply. These include: Never, never litter, but please pick up after those who do; don't park in driveways or other places where you might block traffic; leave wildflowers to be seen by others, and certainly resist the temptation to dig up trees or shrubs.

These responsible actions are but a small price to pay for enjoying the delicious experience of collecting the morel mushroom in some of America's most picturesque settings. Bon appetit! AF
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Clay, Soc
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Words:1257
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