The Morel Mystique
DUTCHESS COUNTY, N.Y.—When the first whispers of warm weather arrive and rainfall dampens the soil, a special legion of mushroom hunters quietly take to the woods. They’re careful not to leave tracks. They park on one side of the mountain and head for the other. They go alone or in small groups, and hide from sight when others approach. Their eyes scan the floor for treasures.
Their objective: the elusive morel, the honeycomb-capped darling of the fungi world.
“People are kind of crazy over morels,” said Tom Bigelow, president of the New York Mycological Society (NYMS). He’s been foraging the wild mushrooms for about a decade.
The early spring mushrooms are the first of the season, and are sought after with near worship-like fervor. Enthusiasts revere them for their unequaled rich, woodsy flavor and succulent, meaty texture; some claim they put truffles to shame.
Morels appear for only a few weeks each year, typically between mid-April and mid-June in the United States, depending on geographical region and weather. When they do, foragers and chefs alike swoon, and the morels fetch handsome prices at the market: upwards of $20 a pound, sometimes reaching $50 or more.
The craze, coupled with their scarcity, has shrouded the mushrooms in an air of secrecy and exclusivity. Morel hunters are often tight-lipped and passionately protective.
“There are people that will go to their graves and not tell anybody about their [morel hunting] spots,” Bigelow says. Loved ones are no exception.
Unlike most mushroom forays, which are highly social activities, morel hunting is “fiercely private and anti-social,” a territorial sport with unwritten rules of etiquette. “We don’t even talk about it in the [mycological] society,” Bigelow says.
When those rules are broken, drama ensues.
“You can see very old friendships strained to the breaking point. People have gone behind people’s backs to steal their spots,” Bigelow says.
He tells of a fellow hunter who had a friend prone to bragging and showing off photos of his morel harvests on Facebook. His gloating was short-lived—the former used the geolocation tags on the photos to track down the spot and clear it out, leaving a smug note and only stumps in his wake.
Other hunters take cautionary tales like these to heart. It’s not uncommon to turn off location services on phones during hunts, and post only screenshots of pictures of morels.
Where the Wild Morels Are
When I first sent out an unwitting plea to join a morel hunt, I was promptly shut down. “The idea of publicity is anathema,” one email explained.
Bigelow came forth as a generous rarity, happily offering to take me up to one of his spots in upstate New York—albeit under the condition that I not reveal its exact location. We were accompanied by Ethan Crenson, another NYMS member and long-time forager.
“I don’t have a problem taking you up here, but there are a lot of morel hunters that would not do that,” Bigelow emphasizes.
It’s the second week of May, and morel season is just beginning in New York, delayed after an unusually long and cold winter. But Bigelow is optimistic.
Our search takes us to an old apple orchard—a far cry, mind you, from the romantic scenery that might evoke. These hunting grounds are tick-infested and overgrown with dense thickets of brambles.
“Mushroom hunting is usually much more pleasant, but morels are a totally different thing,” says Bigelow. “It’s exhausting and miserable. It’s a horrible, horrible place.”
Morels thrive in these horrible habitats, preferring the company of dead elm trees and the grounds of abandoned apple orchards, or burn sites scorched by wildfires.
Looking in old orchards presents another danger: their soils are often saturated with pesticides containing toxic lead arsenate, which then concentrates in the tissue of morels that grow there. Ingesting small amounts should be innocuous, but they can be dangerous for children and in large quantities.
But hunters have no choice but to follow. The prized fungi can only be found in the wild.
That’s because morels are partially mycorrhizal, meaning that they form symbiotic relationships with specific trees and swap sugars and minerals back and forth with the roots. Most of the organism hides underground, while the fruiting bodies—those are the above-ground caps we’re after—only pop up when their partner tree dies, and the sudden abundance of nutrients released into the soil signals the fungi to reproduce. It’s a complex partnership still not fully understood, one that farmers haven’t yet figured out how to cultivate.
And so, armed with pruning shears—if not the highest morale—I head into the brambles.
In a bout of clumsy acrobatics, I attempt to maneuver around, over, and under thorns that hover inches from my eyes and prick through my jeans despite my best efforts, unceremoniously straddling tree branches and crouching and shuffling my way along the floor. “It makes you commune with [the morels] more,” Crenson laughs. He and Bigelow are much more graceful, but still sound out a steady stream of “oww”s.
We claw our way through to the bases of dying apple trees, where morels are likely to surface. They can be found from the base to as far as the outer branches of the tree reach, reflecting the span of the mycelium ball intertwined with the roots underground.
Sometimes, we come up empty. That’s another part of their mystery—trees flush with morels in past years aren’t guaranteed to have them the next. Other times, we find verpas, or “false morels,” lookalikes that Bigelow nicknames “Gastric Distress” for their unpleasant effects. Fortunately, they’re easy to differentiate: the bottom of the cap hangs separate from the stem, while a morel’s is attached. Another red flag is a solid stem; true morels are hollow inside.
I crouch by the trunk of a tree, ducked under a tunnel of brambles. I squat a little closer to the ground, trying to get eye level with the world of fungi, and scan the floor of debris, slowly, squinting.
And then I see it. Emerging from a carpet of dirt and decaying leaves, a bulbous, honeycombed cap in the shape of a narrow spade stands but a couple inches tall, almost glowing in the sun. A labyrinth of pale ridges and dark crevices runs across its surface, twisting and folding like the cortex of a brain. My first morel!
It’s easy to miss; its black-brown-yellow pattern perfectly camouflaged in the sunlight-splotched leaf cover. I lock it in my sights, daring not to glance away—they tend to disappear if you do, Bigelow warns—until I’ve cut it at its stem and safely secured it in my bag.
Freshly enthused, I swivel around to sweep my surroundings. More morels start to pop up before my eyes. Some are no bigger than thumbtacks, hidden behind green sprouts or half-shaded by the underside of a fallen log.
“You don’t see them for a minute and then suddenly they’re everywhere,” Bigelow marvels.
Fruits of Labor
Hours later, we emerge with a modest harvest. It’s too early to strike a real jackpot—Bigelow later informs me that the season was three weeks late—but we still each take home a handful to savor.
But how to prepare such precious bounty?
Bigelow never eats his morels fresh. He prefers to dry them in a food dehydrator, which intensifies their flavor and can preserve them indefinitely, making them available to eat year-round. They reconstitute perfectly, and are especially delicious slow-cooked in the rehydrating liquid.
Before cooking, lightly brush off the surface and cut each mushroom in half to make sure no critters have set up camp in the hollow stems. A tiny slug slithers out of one of mine, and I promptly delegate the rest of the prep to my gracious roommate. Purists may insist against washing or soaking. (I, now wary, wash them anyway.)
Bigelow recommends a simple preparation. Butter, salt, and pepper are enough to make them shine—though their deep folds and crevices also make them a natural pair with velvety cream sauces. Make sure they’re cooked through before eating, as morels are toxic when raw.
I take his advice and brown my batch in a generous pool of butter, finished with just a dash of salt and pepper. They’re delicious: rich and nutty, almost smoky, with a distinctive umami not quite like that of other mushrooms. It’s a flavor that lies in the realm of the indescribable.
It makes me understand a little better the fervor of morel hunters, what brings them running to the woods with eyes alight each spring. Bigelow tells me of a NYMS member with such a love for morels that it led to his death—after decades of eating morels every week, systematically tracked down in old apple orchards using geological survey maps, collected, and dried, he died of poisoning from the accumulated pesticide toxins.
“Before he died, he was very sick with the effects of the poisoning. But he still ate morels,” Bigelow said. Why? He shrugs. “They are delicious.”
In the end, though, it goes beyond just the taste. There’s an addictiveness to the hunt itself.
In her book “Mycophilia: Revelations From the Weird World of Mushrooms,” Eugenia Bone, former president of the NYMS, talks about hunters who don’t even eat their finds. In “Morel Tales: The Culture of Mushrooming,” sociology professor Gary Fine discusses their peculiar enthusiasm, citing jokes within the community of parodied medical conditions like “mycosis neurosis” and “involutional mushroomcholia.”
“I always wonder why I don’t just go to the grocery store and buy some,” Bigelow says as we leave the orchard. His hair is unkempt from catching on brambles, his clothes and shoes spotted with dirt and debris. He pauses to reflect. “I don’t know. It’s exciting when you find that first one.”
Crenson agrees. “It’s the thrill of the hunt.”
RECIPE: Morels with Calvados