On Morel Grounds

MOREL MUSHROOMS ARE WILD FUNGI surrounded by lore and secrecy. Ask a forager to reveal their favorite morel spots and they’ll probably chuckle at the sheer audacity of your question. Rookie mistake. In some mushroom-enthusiast circles, questioning a new acquaintance about their morel territory is like questioning a friend about their favorite sex position: it’s intimate information that may surface after slowly building interpersonal rapport, but usually only in some mutually damning, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” exchange.

In line with this culture of confidentiality, I won’t divulge where I went searching for these mushrooms on a mid-April morning last year. I had never eaten a morel, hadn’t even seen one in the flesh, but I was intrigued by the sparkle that shone in the eyes of those who had.

People describe these mushrooms as tasting meaty yet delicate, earthy yet saline. Veteran foragers who’ve seen both bare years and bumper crops call morels elusive, capricious, and finicky. Leaving empty-handed was a realistic possibility.

I laced up my hiking boots, grabbed my pocketknife, and found the trailhead. I shuffled at half-speed while crooking my neck downward to survey the ground flanking the wooded path. After twenty minutes, I paused to second-guess my approach. Technically, all dirt-dwelling mushrooms are low-hanging fruit, but any morels that had popped up trailside were especially likely to have been harvested already. These gourmet nuggets sell for over eighty dollars per pound when fresh—that’s ten times pricier than your standard cremini. I gazed into the untamed boscage and figured better odds awaited off-trail.

While trudging into untracked territory, my eyes scanned the detritus for a fungal cap. Morels here in the mid-Atlantic region vary in color, from blonde to brunette to gray, the same palette as the forest’s carpet of seed pods, sticks, and dead leaves. My retinas worked overtime, living some organic version of Where’s Waldo. This continuous eagle-eye focus left no room in my mind for even a thread of tangential thought.

Less than ten minutes after leaving the trail, it happened. I spotted a ridged auburn nub on the ground. I gasped to nobody and squatted to shroom level. My hands cleared away the surrounding leaves, and my pocketknife sliced the fungus free at its beige-colored base. The whole affair was maybe an inch long. I cut it lengthwise and peeled the two halves open like a locket to discover that the mushroom was hollow. Good. This is a key characteristic for identification; the morel’s toxic lookalike, the false morel, is filled with white, wispy fuzz.

All the other recognition tips I’d studied were colliding with adrenaline inside my mind—stem connected to the veil in the proper place; cap’s pits and ridges looked right. Feeling confident enough, I stored the specimen in a plastic container I’d brought. This is probably the closest an herbivore would ever get to the feeling of a successful hunt, I thought. I continued, electrified.

Seven more morels appeared over the next three hours. I meandered back to where the car was parked, and despite having added a few mushrooms to my backpack, I felt lighter. The time spent immersed in the forest floor patchwork had given my brain a chance to wring itself free of the thoughts that often saturate my consciousness. It was the mental version of tidying a long-neglected room and then looking around and thinking, was there really this much space in here all along?

Later, in my kitchen, I floated my findings in water to dislodge any dirt or insects lingering in the mushrooms’ crevices. I lined the fungi up on a wooden cutting board by size and double-checked their identity, but mostly I just pondered the strangeness of their honeycomb-like exterior. The longer I stared into the caps’ bizarre undulations, the more I became convinced that morels were dreamt up by Smurfs. I imagined a Smurf council meeting underground annually as winter breaks, voting on where to send their floor-fruits that year. Scientists would tell you that specific temperature and moisture conditions trigger morels to surface, but I stand by Smurf theory.

Finally, I coated my morels with flour, sautéed them with butter, sprinkled them with salt. You could complete your own foray in the time it would take me to fully describe the flavor. Neither the wild taste nor the foraging experience were for sale at the handful of supermarkets within walking distance of my apartment in the city. My forest-to-table experience was rewarding and I’ll search again next year. But sorry, I’m still not saying where. O


Annie Greene is a science writer based in Washington, D.C.


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