The Morel of this story is delicious
When I sense winter’s end, hear the raucous Spring Peepers, or smell the pungent and fertile forest duff again, another delight immediately comes to mind – the morel.
One of my favorite cartoons depicts three morels conversing. One says, “I haven’t seen one human yet.” Another responds, “It’s too early; they’re not out yet.”
When I began my morning Thursday, I would have usually considered the 6th of April as too early for morels to be up. And, in most years, it would be a bit early.
However, we received some rain and a few days of 70-degree weather earlier in the week. I decided, therefore, to ditch my usual hiking route and visit one of my favorite morel honey holes on the odd chance that one or two Morchella elata may have bravely poked their heads up through the dead leaves.
My efforts were rewarded with a half-dozen perfectly fresh black morels. They are currently residing in the vegetable bin of my fridge, awaiting a coating of seasoned cornmeal and the frying pan.
When crispy but not overcooked, these babies will grace the top of another spring ritual of the Appalachians, a ramp feed. My ramps will find their way into a casserole comprised of alternating layers of chopped ramps, sliced potatoes, and sausage topped with sharp cheddar cheese. Crowning this casserole will be the butter-fried morels.
Are you wondering what wine might go with morels and ramps? It depends on your personal preference, but you can’t go wrong with a good sauvignon blanc. When the perfect wine mingles with morels, your taste buds veritably scream “culinary indulgence.”
The addition of the ramps only further titillates the taste buds.
So, what is it about morels that overshadows all the other edible mushrooms that populate our forests here in Pocahontas County?
It is not that people are merely fond of morels; they are howl-at-the-moon crazy about them, and with good reason. The flavor of this ephemeral mushroom is incomparable to any other wild edible, often described as woodsy and nutty.
Mere words do not adequately describe the taste of the morel; the flavor is ineffable. Most people are hooked at the first bite, setting off a lifetime love affair with this strange-looking mushroom.
There are those rare individuals who do not appreciate the exquisite flavor of the morel. It is generally assumed that these unfortunate people have suffered physical damage to their taste buds at some point.
Perhaps the mutilation of the taste buds was incurred by sticking their tongues on a frozen flagpole one sub-zero winter day. But then again, these individuals are relatively rare and tend to believe that the Earth is flat and that unicorns romp about in the moonlight.
Serious morel hunters refer to their favorite spots as “honey holes” – these special locations are closely guarded secrets. They may reveal their favorite ramp patch to their brother-in-law or that wooded ridge where they always find clusters of Chicken of the Woods to a close relative. But the location of their morel honey holes goes to the grave with them.
I once had a bountiful morel honey hole, and I only made the mistake of revealing its location once, and that was to my ex-wife when we were still married. Afterward, she beat me to my honey hole every spring. Even worse, she began leaving index cards hanging from tree branches, saying things like “Thanks Big Mouth” and “Don’t blame me, you’re the one who broke the cardinal rule of morel lovers.”
Not only did she have a penchant for morels, but she was fiercely competitive, greedily jumping in front of me if she saw me stooping over to pick a morel, grabbing it, and putting it in her basket. After a few years of fungal abuse, I divorced her, and my honey holes have been top secret ever since.
If I told you that the word “morel” can be used in the same sentence with deathbed confessions, bribery, and drive-by poaching, you may not believe me, but read on.
My 87-year-old father was on his deathbed at his home in Florida in 2007. My siblings and I stood by his bed one by one and talked to him privately before he passed on.
During my turn, I asked him if there was anything left undone in his life or anything he would like to do one more time. I thought he would undoubtedly lament that he never returned to Australia, where he had spent a month of R&R during World War II. He would get dreamy-eyed when speaking of this time and always muttered something about “Those delightful Aussie gals.”
Instead, he drew me nearer to his face and said in a weakening voice, “Those morels you overnighted to me last April to share with the family; I ate them all.” Good Lord, I thought, an actual deathbed confession involving a morel.
I bet that doesn’t happen every day, or maybe it does!
He said that if he could have anything he wanted, it would be one more plate of morels fried in butter. Well, there cannot possibly be a more honest statement than one made at the very end of one’s life, and it also speaks volumes about his passion for the morel.
My friends, Jim and Beth Bullard, tell a delightful story of being out early one spring morning on Thorny Creek Road in Pocahontas County.
They were birding when a 60-ish man in a white pickup truck stopped beside them and inquired, “Are you m’rellin?” He said it fast, and they were unsure what he said, so they asked him to repeat his question. He repeated, “Are you m’rellin?” Seeing the quizzical looks on Jim and Beth’s faces, he finally asked, “Are you hunting for morels?”
They told him that they were birding. At that, he headed on down the road in his truck. He returned a short while later and showed them a bag of big white morels.
He then explained that he was “m’rellin” from his truck and told them he did his “m’rellin” at 20 miles per hour. He proudly added that he had an uncle that could do his “m’rellin” at 40 miles per hour. That’s some speedy m’rellin for sure.
The Bullards have never forgotten that incident on Thorny Creek Road, and their eyes twinkle with humor each time they recount that story.
Finally, the value placed on morels has even made it onto a TV series. The Dutch series, ”Lord and Master” on Amazon Prime, has an episode where the protagonist attempts to bribe a bad guy who is about to kill him by offering a kilo and a half of morels. The deal was struck, and his life was spared.
Oh, the power of the morel.
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Market Price of three popular delicacies:
Beluga Caviar – $3,200 to $4,500/ lb.
Perigord Truffle – $96 to $168/oz.
Morels – Free, if you can find them. Or, maybe you can talk your brother-in-law into showing you his favorite morel spot. Don’t hold your breath though!