Morel Madness: The Hunt for Morel Mushrooms
Follow Morel Mushroom Hunters on Their Nearby Quests for the Illustrious ‘Shrooms.
story and photos by Joe Byers
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Each year between mid-April and mid-May, mushroom hunters head for their secret spots in Maryland’s woods in search of the mystifying morel mushroom. The morel’s unique honeycombed cap, hollow center and whitish stalk make them relatively easy to identify — if you can find them. Online message boards are packed with how-to tips from experienced hunters on where to look, and Catoctin Mountain Park, the state parks, and along the C&O Canal and Potomac River are all well-known morel habitats locally.
At Catoctin, several varieties, including cappies (with a long stem and small cap), black, grey and yellow, begin appearing in mid-April at lower elevations and grow as late as mid-May higher up the mountain, says Catoctin biologist Becky Lancosky. At Catoctin, ‘shroomers are allowed to keep half a gallon of mushrooms per day — “a pretty good find,” says Becky. But good luck getting them to spill their favorite hot spots. You’d have better luck convincing them to reveal their age, weight or Social Security number than the location of their morel patch. It’s the mushroom’s texture and flavor that make them worth the search, and their locations worth safeguarding.
Ronnie McAllister takes morel hunting so seriously that he annually schedules a week’s vacation to hunt in late April. A mere “grasshopper” at mushroom hunting, I invite the master to a tract of land near Clear Spring hoping to learn some of his ‘shrooming tactics. “I generally have the best luck searching around poplar trees or dead elms on the south or southeast slopes of ridges,” he says. “You want to look for places of other vegetation as mushrooms often grow in the shade.” We begin along a stream bank below mature tulip-poplar trees. As expected, Ronnie finds the first ones, which were barely thimble size. We look for nearly an hour and discover just one more.
So, we move on to another poplar stand where Ronnie locates three large mushrooms and I one. A third location holds promise but no fungus, prompting my mentor to share one of his secret spots on a nearby state wildlife management area. After hiking half a mile into the mountains, we search around large poplar trees with limited but consistent success. The morels here are very small, yet many trees have a single fungus nearby. I stumble upon a dead porcupine, and Ronnie remembers seeing the damage the animals do to trees and shows me two large birch trees that are nearly girdled. Suddenly, a turkey gobbles and we look at each other in surprise. A few minutes later it gobbles again, closer this time, perhaps mistaking us for hens scratching for food. Our hunt isn’t Ronnie’s first walk on the wild side — two weeks earlier he saw a black bear not far from our location.
The last time Ronnie hunted, he accumulated 26 deer ticks on his body, so he took special precautions like wearing high boots with pant legs tucked in and wrapped his sleeves with tape to create a bug barrier. He recommends that hunters spray their pants and boots with permethrin (not on skin) to ward off ticks and other insects. A walking stick helps maintain balance when climbing over rocks, logs and other obstructions and is ideal for pushing aside weeds or briars. The ground must be moist, the soil the right temperature, and Ronnie believes pH plays a role as well. One year, rain fell for several days and rather than waiting for the sun to shine, he hunted thinking others wouldn’t and found four bread bags full of large fungi. The trick, he says, is to find the first mushroom and search for similar circumstances like vegetation, tree type and elevation. “Often if you take a step, just that small change in sight angle can reveal morels that can be easily overlooked.”
Dubbed “the steak of the woods,” morels enhance the flavor of accompanied foods — a perfect grilled topping on pizzas, a delicacy sautéed in olive oil with garlic and parsley, or a succulent starter dish atop a slice of bread. “The taste of morel mushrooms [compared] to the button variety you find on pizza is like comparing steak to cardboard,” says Tom Nauman, owner of the popular Morel Mania website. And, ‘shroomers can sell fresh morels anywhere from $40 to $180 a pound to restaurants, Tom says. Sought insatiably by the nation’s finest chefs, this ultimate condiment is widely distributed throughout the Tri-State area, thanks to an informed few.
With two dozen freshly gathered mushrooms from my day’s hunt with Ronnie, I could barely wait to contact “Marcel’s” @ The James Buchanan Hotel, where Co-owner Cat Bonciu and former head chef Matthew Merkel agreed to share one of their favorite recipes. Each is wildly enthusiastic as I unveil the day’s finds, and I could only imagine the culinary delights they had in store. “They’re beauties,” quips Cat in his lingering Hungarian accent, “but first we must clean them properly by soaking them in lemon juice” — a regimen that kills the tiny worms that inhabit morels, even very fresh ones. “Soaking them overnight in salt water will have the same effect.”
After a lengthy soak, Cat gives the mushrooms a second wash then dips them in seasoned flour. Matthew sautées them in a sizzling pan of melted butter, a process easily duplicated at home, until he pours in brandy and the dish catches fire. Meanwhile, Cat sears the edges of a freshly cut Angus fillet (to seal in the juices) then braises each side until it reaches the “medium” doneness I’d requested. The foundation of the dish consists of rice, asparagus, red peppers and small morels, the steak, mushrooms and crowned with grilled veggies — magnificent! Cat recommends several wines to accompany the meal, from an Italian pinot grigio and a white ménage a trios (three grapes in one bottle), to a blend of chardonnays, a mild merlot or a mild cabernet. But the best, Cat says, is an Opus One 2006, “the silk of wines. In my book, no French or Australian wine will touch it.”
The steak dinner would have been excellent on its own, yet the morels add a special, somewhat nutty taste that makeshe meal extra special. Aside from masterful preparation was the self-fulfilling feeling that I found the fungi treasures on my own — well, a few of them anyway.
Disclaimer: There are many types of poisonous wild mushrooms. Consult an experienced mushroom hunter who is well educated in discerning edible from poisonous mushrooms. When in doubt, do not eat any wild mushrooms you find. If you start to feel dizzy, sick to your stomach or get cramps after eating a wild mushroom, seek medical attention immediately.
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Prepping for the Hunt
Whether You Consider Yourself a Hunter or a Gatherer, Follow These Tips to Maximize Your Morel Find.
• Create a bug shield. Spray your shoes and trousers with permethrin. If you’re prone to poison ivy, wear light gloves.
• Pick up a walking stick to aid balance and move leaves.
• Search prime areas like the base of tulip poplar, ash, apple and dead elms on eastern and southeastern slopes.
• Cover ground quickly until you find the first morel, then slow down and look very carefully for more.
• Analyze the elevation, sun angle, vegetation and tree types, and search for the next patch in similar circumstances.
• Pinch off the mushrooms at the base and carry them in an onion sack for maximum spore disbursement to help boost the next year’s crop.
• Show and share your bounty, but reveal the location at your peril.
Fast Fungal Food
Morels are incredibly simple to prepare, especially for breakfast. First, cut the large ones lengthwise and soak in salt water and lemon juice for at least an hour. Rinse before cooking. Roll in seasoned flour and sauté in a hot pan of melted butter. Brown on each side. Beat six eggs and pour over the morels. Prepare as you would scrambled eggs.