Saturday, May 17, 2014

Morels: Tis The Season

Photo credit: Chris Matherly

There’s just something about morels that drives people to madness.

That’s according to Chris Matherly, a self-described “morel obsessive,” who we spoke to when he was midway through a four-month-long hunt, chasing the hard-to-find mushroom from Georgia to Washington State.

Matherly left his Kennesaw, Georgia home in late March; he won’t return until early July, at the tail end of the morel growing season.

Because they’re elusive, “there’s something about the morel mushroom that just drives people crazy,” Matherly explained. “They get addicted.”

Even among the curious-looking oddballs of the mushroom kingdom, the morel sticks out. With its tall, honeycombed cap, it has the look of a Martian roe sac. Its unique appearance is both a blessing and a curse: There’s little chance of confusing a morel with any other mushroom (including a poisonous one), but its shape and coloring blend effortlessly into its forest-floor surroundings, making it difficult to spot.

Once located, however, the morel is a treat. “The flavor of them is just so unique, kind of nutty and earthy,” Matherly mused.

Among its fans are the hordes who follow Matherly into the woods at each stop along his morel-chasing route. Over the course of his trip, Matherly will host at least 10 guided morel hunts, each with a group of up to 30 fervid mushroom hunters. 

Matherly organizes the trips through his website, Morel Mushroom Hunting Club, which he started in 1999 and which boasts roughly 1,500 members. He says he’s booked solid through the fall. (During the year, Matherly hosts up to 50 foraging trips for other mushrooms and herbs.)

Morels can be found all over the United States, and each region’s season typically lasts for three or four weeks. The warmer the area, the earlier its morel season begins, Matherly explained. In Georgia, the first morels spring up in late February. By April, morels are beginning to sprout up the East coast, all the way up to Vermont. In May, they’re in northern Michigan, Oregon, and Washington.

All told, morels can be found somewhere in America right through the end of August. If you’re interested in finding some of your own, do your research and check Matherly’s Mushroom Report, which compiles morel sightings all over the country. (Right now, Ohioans, you’re in luck!)

Morels generally like to grow in the shady earth near the roots of trees, Matherly said. The type of tree depends on the region: In the flood plains of the Southeast, morels grow under ash trees. In the Midwest, they’re often found under dying elms. In the Pacific Northwest, morels favor firs, and in Kentucky and Tennessee, tulip poplar trees. And on and on.

And what exactly is a morel? “The mushroom that we pick is the fruiting body of an organism that grows underground,” he expounded. Morels “have a symbiotic relationship with certain trees… they get nutrients from the roots, and the mushroom’s root system gives trees extra moisture during droughts.”

Despite these subtle differences, all morels boast that tell-tale honeycomb cap and an earthy flavor. ”I never get tired of them, and I never get tired of hunting them,” Matherly said wistfully. “By August, I know that’s one of the last morels of the year. I start getting depressed. I’ve got to get back home to reality.”

Many morel-enthusiast websites (of which there are many) swear that the only way to properly enjoy morels is to sauté them in butter.

And whether you’re foraging your own morels or purchasing them at your neighborhood farmer’s market, take care to savor the season—morels will be gone before you know it.

[Article by Rachel Tepper, Associate Food Editor]

“A writer soon learns that easy to read is hard to write.” ~CJ Heck

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