There's some old saying about spring showers bringing flowers, and flowers are fine. But what I'm looking for, pushing up through the dark loam and leaf litter in our woods, is pale and fleshy, redolent of leaf mold. It's the honeycombed head of a morel mushroom.
It's been a terrific spring for morel hunting in our woods. Wet and cool, with long periods of rain followed by a few days of warm sun. You couldn't have a better recipe for burgeoning fungus. Behind our house is the remains of a defunct orchard. The rotting hulks of apple trees lean this way and that, and decaying apple roots are a favorite host for morel mushrooms.
Morel hunting is addictive. It's imbued with mystery and chance and a good dash of Zen. You don't find morels so much as you notice them. When you see one, you must stop and gaze carefully all around it, because where there is one, there are bound to be others. You must also be ready to find nothing, and that's the hardest part.
Shroomers, as mushroom hunters like to call themselves, develop their own theories as to what makes good morel habitat — apple or ash, elm or poplar. If they don't find the mushrooms, they say it's been too dry; or perhaps it's been too wet. Maybe it's been too warm, maybe too cold. Nobody really knows what particular combination of factors makes for good hunting, but everyone seems to have a theory.
Those of us who know something of morels freely dispense our theories, but we keep our hunting grounds a dark secret. Like hidden treasure, morels bring out our covetous side.
The morel organism is a huge underground system called a mycelium, which is made up of connected fungal strands and clods that can cover acres. It can live for decades, but it doesn't put forth fruit every year. What we see aboveground — those hollow, rubbery, wrinkled manifestations — are just the fruiting bodies of the ancient, secret creature living deep beneath the ground.
We pick ours into a mesh onion bag, and we swing it like a censer as we walk, hoping that we're spreading precious spores as we go. Back home, we rinse them briefly, then sprinkle the holy wash water back where we found them, completing a ritual of thanks to the fungus that feeds us.
Picking morels feels like stealing treasure from the rich soil; cutting their firm, shapely forms into little wheels is a sensual pleasure. A rich, peaty smell rises up from them. When butter begins to bubble in the pan, you drop the mushrooms in, and the liquid pours out of them. They're tender in moments, and you must remove them while you reduce the sauce. A dash of white wine, a tiny dollop of mustard, green onions and a whomp of sour cream; salt to taste, and you return the little wheels to their sauce, drizzling them over rice, pasta or meat.
Morels fairly explode with complex flavor, with woodsy, earthy, mysterious notes. They taste like nothing else on Earth; they're in a class with truffles and caviar. And best of all, they're free, waiting out on the leafstrewn slopes where the wood thrush sings, there for the noticing.
Julie Zickefoose hunts morels on her 80-acre nature preserve near Whipple Ohio. It offers sanctuary to deer, birds, and box turtles--but it's open season on delicious morels. She's currently writing a memoir on birds, a followup to her first book Letters from Eden.