Morels are a quintessential spring time mushroom in California. Morels, mushrooms in the genus Morchella, are funny looking ascomycetes with wrinkly caps and hollow stems. Mushroom enthusiasts go gaga for their earthy flavor.
Morels are considered to be associated with fires, and mushroom hunters seek out recently burned forests in order to find them. In California, there is no shortage of fires and newly burnt forests. While this is bad for the trees, there is one benefit for mycologists- morels!
Although I do research in forests burned by wildfires, I unfortunately missed the mushroom season in my field sites last year. I wasn’t able to get to the burn sites during the spring rains because I was in Switzerland giving a talk at the Mycorrhizal Symbiosis meeting and then I got to visit my cousins in Italy – I know, poor me :P. Fortunately, a local mushroom hunter came to visit my lab a few weeks ago and brought some of these soil borne treasures.
A word of caution though before you set off to hunt for these epicurean delights on your own – be sure that you know what you are doing! There are some sneaky look alikes called elfin saddles that contain a toxin similar to rocket fuel! However, once you get the hang of it the pitted caps of these mushrooms are fairly distinctive. Luckily, I have access to many world experts in mycology so I know that my mushrooms were safe to eat :)
Since I hadn’t tried wild picked morels before, I decided to cook them and try them in their purest form so I could really get a feel for their flavor. I sautéed them in butter, added a little salt, and put them on some multigrain toast. They were delicious!
Patrick Hamilton, a chef and mushroom enthusiast that I met while giving a talk at the Sonoma County Mycological Association, gave me the tip to let them cook for 8 minutes.
The first time I tried them I put them plain on toast. I wanted to try them plain and simple in all their earthy mushroomy glory.
The next day I invited my friend Judy over to try the morels. I still kept it simple but this time I added cheese!
Here is Judy enjoying morels while appropriately sporting the Berkeley mycology shirt!