• Outdoors May 21, 2014

    May is truly a marvelous month. Spring rains have brought an incredible bloom of trilliums to local forest floors. Wild turkey season is well underway and walleye anglers are enjoying the first action for these toothy and tasty critters across inland lakes. May is also the month for the forest forager, and May is for morels! The 2014 appearance of Morel Mushrooms could possibly be one of the greatest in recent memory.

    Morels are an interesting little fungi. Fortunately these mushrooms flourish in May throughout our local range of Grey-Bruce forests…sometimes. Unlike many forest mushrooms, morels are easily identifiable by telltale characteristics making them one of the safer mushrooms for beginners to forage. Morels are most often said to resemble a little “brain” or honeycomb atop a hollow stalk and come in a variety of colours, ranging from black to light cream, with an array of different shades of grey. 50 species of morels exist worldwide, but locally, creams, greys, and blacks are the primary finds. These super tasty treats range in size from a thimble upwards to 8 inches in height pending growing conditions and species.

    Morels are mysterious creatures, popping up in local forests with abandon one season, and seeming to vanish the next. They might grow on an aged lawn one spring, only to be found in an adjacent vacant lot the next season. Plenty of literature exists on the mysterious nature of these ‘shrooms, claiming they only pop up near dead Elm tress, or fallen Ash. Many wise mushroom pickers suggest morels love to grow in old apple orchards or fresh logging cuts. In the West, black morels flourish in recent forest burns, sprouting the season after a blaze that caused major damage to a forest. If there were rhyme or reason to the unpredictable appearance of morels each spring, they wouldn’t be such an enigma. There is little doubt that morel growth coincides with decaying tree matter, but that is not the only requirement for morels to appear. Many times, the reason for their appearance is simply a mystery.

    Why the hype about morels popping up in local forests? Simply put, morels are the finest eating mushroom on the planet. Acclaimed chefs across the globe rank the morel as the top pick of the mushroom kingdom. Add to their prized taste and texture the fact that morels are not commercially grown with success and you have one very sought after and valuable little treasure. The arrival of morels on fine dining menus across North America is the product of some hardcore detective work. Morel pickers are not a rare breed, as the mushroom garners major attraction in the United States Mid-West. The states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana are home to tens of thousands of morel pickers. Michigan hosts major morel hunting competitions, and even major festivals, cashing in on the tourism generated by the tasty forest treat.

    On a local scale, Grey-Bruce is a hotbed for morels in the province of Ontario. The sandy soils along the western portion of the lower Peninsula are perfect for morel growth. Older forests throughout Grey County are also known to produce some fine hauls of morels. Just this week I passed numerous groups of ‘shroomers picking along the parkway in Sauble Beach, near Owen Sound on highway 6 and throughout County properties in Bruce. My friends and I spent two days over the long weekend filling bags with large numbers of grey and cream mushrooms, along with some black morels that were still in prime condition. Media reports from Detroit stated that Michigan morel fanatics suggested the season was going to peak by late this weekend, with morels showing up until the end of the month. This prediction appears to be mirrored throughout our area. Temperature, moisture content and sunlight all play a major roll in the growth and appearance of a season’s morel crop. Our past winter provided plenty of moisture for local soils, and this surely has had an impact on the great emergence of this year’s shrooms.

    A morel hunt costs nothing to undertake. A keen eye and good forests are all you need to take part in the spring bounty. Public forest tracts provide ample opportunity to cash in on the crop, and considering the market value of fresh morels currently sits around $55/lb, the motivation to get searching couldn’t be better.

    A fresh morel is quite delicate and should be picked with care. The texture of the morel is indicative of its freshness, with prime morels maintaining some firmness. If a morel begins to crumble when you handle it, or if it shows signs of decay along the edges of the honeycomb top, the morel might be past its best before date. Morels should be picked by pinching the stalk just above ground level. It is worth noting that these, like many mushroom varieties, propagate through spores, so carrying your catch in a perforated or mesh bag is ideal to ensure the spores spread as you walk through the bush.

    Once you get them home, slice them lengthwise and discard the bugs that often find a home inside (a morel is a pleasure palace for slugs). A quick soak in salt water will help remove the remaining crawling things. From there, allow them to air dry on paper towel and store in the fridge. Fresh morels keep only a few days in the fridge but can be preserved by allowing them to fully dry, either on a window screen, or dry towels. A food dehydrator is also beneficial to preserving morels for long periods of time. Properly dried morels can be stored in a paper bag, placed in a cool/dry area and last for years.

    When it comes to indulging in the world’s finest mushroom, preparing a morel feast is simple. Sautee morels with some chopped garlic, black pepper and butter. You can flour and fry morels in hot oil, or even add them to soups and sauces. Morels are the finest compliment to a well-aged steak on the grill, or in a cream sauce upon a fresh salmon fillet. The internet can provide you with more ways to cook morels than physically possible in one season….which leaves me anticipating the annual arrival each May.

    Forest foragers could not have asked for a better spring in terms of morels. Wild leeks and fiddleheads are also out in full force this week, adding to the bounty you can take home in your bag and transfer to plate. Nothing tops acquiring your own food. Whether you hunt, fish or forage, providing natures finest foods for your own table is a skill that seems to have lost traction with many of our population. Learn to feed yourself with the finest foods the forest can provide. The exercise you get by being outside on your feet is just the beginning of the benefits.
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