I love foraging for wild plants, and Halcyon provides me ample opportunities. Summer gardening can provide a similar satisfaction from picking the crops we plant such as strawberries, tomatoes, asparagus, and beans. However, there is a special excitement that comes from gathering food from the wild, from the plants that were here before us, planted by birds or benign neglect (my general land-management style). I am lucky to have black raspberries, which I prefer to the red raspberries even though the seeds get stuck in my teeth. We also enjoy wine berries, yet another invasive species from Asia that makes for juicy eating, tasty pies, and which freezes better than any berry I know. There are also invasive autumn olives (http://www.halcyonnature.com/2012/10/) that I will probably always be able to gather because the birds spread them, and the shrubs are growing faster than I am able to eradicate them. We get a small amount of blackberries every summer, though I am noticing their creep in abundance, largely due to my not mowing all the fields as the previous owners did. I eagerly await all these free treats, getting excited as I see the plants emerging from winter’s dormancy, and then even more so when the flower buds form. Foraging provides a lovely balance of feeding my soul and stomach at the same time.
While I am waiting for the berries of summer, I could get my foraging fix from dandelion greens as early as March, but I don’t really fancy them, and so I only ate them a few times this spring. Much more satisfying is a special treat that I found by accident one year and now seek out purposefully – the coveted morel mushroom, Morcella sp.
This most magical of my foraging adventures is short-lived, which can seem regrettable when slowly chewing a hearty sautéed sample. To not feel sad when they are gone, I have rationalized that their temporary presence in my culinary year only makes them all the more delicious. I couldn’t possibly appreciate a whole bushel to enjoy in various dishes for a week or frozen for use in winter stews, right? Right? Besides, part of the allure is finding them, and part of that allure is the fact that I do not have to add it to a to-do list, relegating it to a chore, which would surely happen if they were available for a longer window of time.
Though I’ve never hunted, foraging for morels feels how I think a hunt might feel. I even stalk through the woods with a knife in one hand and net bag in the other. Information about morels and other mushrooms commonly uses the phrase mushroom hunter. I think this has to do with the fact that we can’t necessarily be sure where they are each year. We don’t say we’re raspberry hunters because we can just walk right up to the plants and start picking. I think the choice of terms is a bit muddled. I don’t see why you couldn’t be a raspberry hunter if you were dropped off in probable raspberry habitat and started seeking (a synonym for hunting) currently unknown plants to pick. And, though I’ve hunted for morels all over Halcyon, they have so far always been in the same general area.
Hunting for morels requires patience. If you don’t know for sure where you will find them, you need to focus, move slowly, and keep a sight image in mind of the mushroom. After spotting that first morel emerging from leaf litter, the hunt gets easier for me. After I see that first morel, I can turn slowly in place and often see three or four more where I just “looked”. Of course, spending time learning their most likely habitat helps get you started.
Morels are really good mushrooms. They’re not mushy or slimy. They’ve a nice, chewy bite, and a nutty, meaty flavor. My son Kevin will eat them, and he scorns all other mushrooms. This is a pretty typical response among other mushroom haters that have been convinced to try morels. Morels are the king of mushrooms and worth the high price one might pay for them at a market, which makes my ability to forage for them a practically priceless experience.
This year was a particularly good hunt. On my second time out my net bag was stuffed, and I felt that any more morels would smash the ones I had, plus I hadn’t found any more for a good ten minutes. I decided to head home. Right as I was crossing the stream, my net bag split and two morels fell into the water. In the split second when I shouted, “NO!” – imagine forlorn and high-pitched tones mixed together – and looked to see them bobbing downstream, two memories and one thought crossed my mind. I was reminded of the Aesop’s fable where the dog with the bone sees his reflection in the water and, thinking it’s another dog with a juicy piece of meat, opens his mouth to get the meat and loses his piece of meat in the water. It would be equally greedy for me to lunge for those two morels and jeopardize my whole stash. My other memory was of helping my daughter with a stream study project in 9th grade. I didn’t need to measure the flow right now to know that my renegade morels would soon be lost. And the thought that crossed my mind was about wet shoes. I really didn’t want wet shoes. Greed and inconvenience won out. I was going after those morels. By the time I ran up the opposite bank and gingerly laid my stash on the grass, the two escapees were 10 feet farther downstream. By the time I got to the rocks where I last sighted the renegades, I could only see one trapped in an eddy. Never minding the wet shoes, I retrieved the trapped one at least. Morels are just that good.