|Maine Farmhouse Journal
When we lived in Michigan the coming of spring was marked when wild morel mushroom started appearing in local markets. The best morels, however, were those that you found on your own. Mushroom hunters had their secret spots in the woods where they could harvest the prized edible yellow morel. Cleaned and cooked, morels are a delicacy with a very bold and deep earthy flavor that complements chicken and pork. I like them as well just fried and eaten with a little salt and pepper.
As a lad in Hudson, NH my good buddy Richard and I used to accompany his Polish grandmother on her foraging trips to collect a variety of edible wild mushrooms. It looked easy, but whenever we tried to do it on our own we always picked the poisonous kind. I remember his grandmother sorting through our basket of mushrooms, discarding every one declaring "bad mushroom, will make you sick", or "very bad mushroom, will kill you". Years later, I learned from a Michigan mycologist (mushroom expert) about morels and was delighted to find that I could forage and identify at least one variety of edible mushroom without poisoning myself on some toadstool by mistake.
On moving back to Maine I had gotten out of the habit of the annual springtime mushroom hunt. Last spring I happened to be walking through one of my Effingham, New Hampshire woodlots, not looking for mushrooms but checking out an area where I wanted to plant some red pine seedlings. Along a skidder trail in the pine-hardwood forest I found mushroom after mushroom sprouting from old logs and forest duff. The mushrooms looked very similar to the morels I remembered from Michigan and I harvested a number and took them home. There I pulled out my mushroom books to see what I'd found.
I had heard that Maine's climate and expanses of mixed forests make it exceptionally good for mushroom hunting. According to the Maine Extension Service there are several different kinds of edible mushrooms in Maine that can be enjoyed. The Service also cautions, however, that mushroom pickers should be careful about what they eat from the wild. There are about a dozen other varieties of toadstools that look similar to edible mushroom, but that can be deadly poisonous or will make you sick if you eat them.
On the cover of their brochure "Some Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms in Maine" (bulletin #7049, $1.25) was a color photo of two morel mushrooms, one edible and one poisonous. I very disappointed to find I had picked a big bag of poisonous "False Morels" from my woodlot. This mushroom (Gyromitra esulenta) is also called a beefsteak mushroom and deaths and illness have been reported from eating it. From the Extension Service bulletin and other references I learned that the false morel is easily confused with the true, or yellow morel (Morchella esculenta). It is one to three inches tall and has a cap that is folded and wrinkled. The inside of a false morel is mostly solid, interspersed with air pockets or chambers. The true morel has a cone-shaped cap with a pitted surface that looks a sponge, and have a hollow, white stem. It is similar, but not what I'd found.
A good friend of mine who knows his mushrooms gave me three simple ways to tell true morels from false morels. (1) If it isn't hollow, don't swallow! (2) If it is red you could be dead! and (3) when in doubt, throw it out! I've learned to enjoy this fun springtime activity like it was a treasure hunt, with the prize to a successful hunt a bucket of delicious edible (and safe) morel mushrooms.
The good news was that both false and true morels could be found in the same type of spring woods. We have yellow morels in Maine. They are sometimes found in oak woods, but can also be found in apple orchards and near elm trees and stumps. However, they are not common in Maine and finding them is very unusual.
Finding false morels just motivated me to widen my search to find some of the edible ones. I searched my Effingham woodlot again and found no yellow morels. Rambling through a stand of red oaks in Sebago I was excited to see the familiar form of a yellow morel poking its head through the oak leaf litter on the ground! The cap looked like a sponge. With shaking hands I cut it off at its base and split it open lengthwise. It was hollow and white! I had found a true, edible, yellow morel!
There were several other yellow morels in this oak stand, and I found more not far away in the same woods. Once home, they made a wonderful dish with chicken. I saved one out just to dice, fry in a little bacon fat and eat with a little salt and pepper. Delicious!
This spring I am visiting an old buddy in Virginia for a few days of fly fishing, spring turkey hunting, and roaming the woods hunting for morels. The mushroom season here is about a month ahead of Maine, so I can get a little practice in early. BNoe and I talked to his neighbor James, a serious morel hunter. "Where do get your morels around here?" I asked him. He said, "Well boys, I'd like to help you out, but I won't even tell my mother where my mushroom patch is located. If I told you, I'd then have to kill you." With true southern hospitality James did mention a couple of spots where we might find something, but made no promises. We'll wander out later this afternoon and see what we can find. With any luck we'll find enough for supper and have enough to bring some back home to Maine.
And where is this patch of rare Maine morels that I've located back home? I'll never tell!
Morel Mushroom Recipes
This article was edited and published in the Neighbors Section of the Portland Press Herald on May 6, 2004 under the title "The morel of this story is a rare, tasty treat".
Last updated May 29, 2004
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree