‘It Tastes Like the Woods’
My father was on his deathbed in Florida when I asked him if there was anything he wanted to do in life but never got around to it. The 87-year-old man who had lived through the Great Depression, served in the Civilian Conservation Corps, and went off to fight for his country in World War II simply answered, “No.”
After a few moments of thoughtful silence, he added, “All I want now is one more plate of fried morels.” He died a few hours later not able to have his final wish fulfilled.
Such was one man’s testament to the exquisite flavor of the morel. A taste that causes the most generous among us not to reveal the location of their favorite hunting spot.
These secretive locations are revealed only to immediate family members, not in-laws, not your favorite high school teacher, and not even your priest. You might say these sacred hunting grounds are sacrosanct.
My friend and former colleague, Mark Reed, aptly calls his secret morel patches his “honey spots.”
I once prepared a plate of fried morels for a middle-aged woman, her first ever-culinary venture into wild mushrooms. She first smell-ed the sizzling golden-brown mushroom on the end of her fork before tentatively placing it in her mouth.
As the unique flavor aroused her taste buds, she looked up at me, and her widening eyes said it all. She exclaimed, “This is delicious; it tastes like the woods.”
Only a morel lover would understand her response.
I have often wondered if those few people who do not appreciate the taste of this wild delicacy may have fried their taste buds in their youth by too eagerly biting into a slice of hot pizza. Melted mozzarella has taken a toll on many a taste bud.
Of course, when it comes to food and drink, taste is somewhat subjective and a very individualized thing.
Although, as humans, we are well equipped to distinguish between sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and another flavor that has been around forever but didn’t rate its own category until chefs became celebrities and TV food shows were all the rage – umami.
Caution: Umami should not be confused with tsunami for obvious reasons. If someone shouts “tsunami” while you’re lying on a beach, run for the hills. If someone screams “umami,” run directly to the person wearing an apron and chef’s hat.
We generally link umami with monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer discovered in 1908 by chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda at the Imperial University in Tokyo.
However, this compound occurs naturally in many foods we eat regularly – tomatoes, meat, aged cheeses, some seafood, green tea and, of course, mushrooms.
In describing the flavor of a morel, we could shortcut our description by saying “umami.” The problem is that the word is not commonly used outside the culinary world.
Imagine saying to your local butcher, “Which cut of beef would provide the best mouth-feel and umami for my barbecue?” He just might send you off to the nearest Whole Foods where they speak that language.
So, if using the word umami is too much of a stretch, replace it with savory. Just think about your grandmother’s special Thanksgiving turkey gravy; your mouth may involuntarily water. Did Pavlov ring your bell? If so, that’s umami.
Throughout my 66 years of hunting morels, I have steadfastly maintained that on a scale of one to 10 for taste, morels are the sole mushroom occupying the high end of the scale.
That is until I stumbled on a curious and beautiful fungus I had never encountered before. I am not saying that this snow-white toothy mushroom will nudge the morel off of its lofty perch, but at the very least, the morel will have to make room for Comb Tooth on its pedestal.
Pocahontas County, West Virginia ~ mushroom heaven
Before we delve further into this new fungal contender for king of the shrooms, I want to discuss something I have observed closer to home. And by home, I mean Pocahontas County.
This county, endowed with endless forests, also has a glut of edible wild mushrooms. Boletes, chanterelles, bradleys, morels, hen of the woods, lion’s mane, horn of plenty, green quilt russula and countless more wonderful mushrooms thrive in our forests in great numbers.
So why is it that with the availability of so many delicious edible mushrooms, some people whittle their collecting list down to just two species, morels, and chicken of the woods?
Yep, you are correct; both species are easy to identify. However, another factor may be involved, one worth noting: fear of death by a poisonous mushroom.
Yes, some mushrooms can kill you, but thankfully, they are few and far between. Expanding your knowledge of mushrooms can offer great rewards in broadening your range of flavor experiences and culinary uses. Mushroom identification classes are offered every year here in our county.
In August, I saw where a chicken of the woods was freshly cut from a tree up on Droop Mountain. Yet, all around said tree, dozens of the graceful chanterelles were growing.
They even crushed several chanterelles underfoot to get to the chicken of the woods.
That’s a little like kicking a porterhouse steak out of the way to get to a hotdog – not that there is anything wrong with a hotdog, particularly if it is a West Virginia Hotdog.
Laura Evans is a part-time resident of Pocahontas County, spending winters at her home in Austin, Texas. She recently sent me a picture that she took at an Austin market. In a cardboard flat were several dozen long-in-the-tooth chanter-elles. The price tag? $49.99 a fresh pound, only they weren’t fresh.
Price alone doesn’t always mean quality; more often than not, demand dictates prices, and demand results from desire. Once people try the chanterelle, say, in an omelet, they generally love the flavor. And, the chanty does pair well with egg dishes and white wines.
Stumbling over a jewel
I nearly stumbled over a log while hiking in the last week of September. My eyes were focused on a highly regarded medicinal and edible mushroom called lion’s mane several feet up on a tree trunk. When my hiking boot made contact with the log, I stopped in time to avoid a tumble.
As I cautiously stepped over the log, I noticed what I first thought was a coral mushroom attached to the backside of the downed tree. After collecting the lion’s mane, I returned to the log.
I realized that if this snow-white fungus was a coral, it was out of its usual habitat. They are usually found scattered or solitary on the ground. Upon closer examination, it was clearly not a coral. I took a small sample of the unusual and beautifully structured fungus home for proper identification.
Determining that the genus of my mushroom was Hericium was easy, but identifying the species was a bit more difficult. The common name for my find was “comb tooth, “ which made sense considering the fine teeth. However, the identity of the species required no less than breaking open five of my mushroom guides and spending considerable time on Google.
There are several variants of Hericium, and all may appear on the same tree or rotting log at the same time. They are also saprobic, meaning that they take their nutrition in a parasitic manner from dead or living trees, resulting in the decomposition of their host.
The specific species boiled down to either americanum or coralloides, depending on the reference book. I believe that the two terms are used interchangeably.
All sources agreed that this mushroom was exceptionally delicious. The author of a handbook on medicinal uses of mushrooms said that Hericium was his wife’s favorite mushroom to eat, and she often urged him to get out and hunt for them.
Upon reading this, I thought, “This comb tooth may be edible, even good, but certainly not in the same league with the revered morel.” I can be forgiven for this rash assumption because I had not yet melted the butter in my sauté pan.
Ten minutes later, I am standing over the sink tasting my first-ever sample of this mushroom.
I had to tell someone my reaction to the flavor, but my dogs were the only ears in earshot. They heard words like mouth-feel, excellent texture, woodsy, nutty, aged brandy, notes of this or that, and even umami.
Ten more minutes after completing my gushing approbation of this tasty treasure I had stumbled upon, I was back in my car. Another 20 minutes or so had me kneeling on the ground gathering the remainder of my newfound gustatory treasure.
Another plus for this mushroom is that it would be hard to confuse it with a dangerous mushroom. The only mushroom that is similar in color and structure is lion’s mane, and fortunately, it is also edible and in the same Hericium family.
I shared my bounty with several friends, and their reactions affirmed my conviction that Hericium coralloides and its variations are mushrooms worth collecting at every opportunity.
Where did I find this luscious delicacy? My lips are sealed!