Where the WILD things hide

Stalking the secret places of the mysterious morel mushroom - a variety that refuses to thrive in captivity

May 01, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

He who secrets reveals

And nothing conceals

Somehow never tells

Where grow morels

- Rollo Leach, Boston mushroom aficionado

SOMEWHERE IN BALTIMORE COUNTY - Don't even ask. Suffice it to say that the exact location of this story lies between the Pennsylvania line and the Syms clothing store in Towson.

There's a narrow asphalt road through the woods, a stand of beech and tulip poplar. From dead leaves underfoot emerge Virginia creepers, thorny tangles of wild rose, May apples, an assortment of beer cans and bottles, and, if conditions are just so, the peculiar spongy cap of a morel mushroom.

The mushrooms may be there, they may not.

"You never really know," says Galen Sampson. "It's all weather-related."

Sampson, culinary director at Harbor Court Hotel, settles his considerable frame behind the wheel of his Jeep Cherokee, a vehicle painted so bright red you'd expect to see it racing to a house fire. The matter at hand is only somewhat less urgent, as morel-mushroom season is brief, the mushroom itself famously elusive.

Even as Sampson and companions climb into the Cherokee, forces at work in the earth may be stirring morels into being. With a warm spell and enough moisture, they can appear almost overnight, beckoning local morel fans to their favorite hunting ground, the precise location carefully guarded.

The host of this expedition, restaurant consultant Diane Neas, insists on secrecy. She mentions the possibility of a blindfold for the ride to the hunting grounds. She's joking. Perhaps. It's how people are about morels.

"Harvesting morels is serious business," writes Elio Schaechter in In the Company of Mushrooms. There's a story, he says, about an elderly European woman who calls her niece home from America to her deathbed so she might "whisper in her ear the location of her private morel haunt."

Jerry Pellegrino, chef-owner of Corks in Federal Hill, tells about the fellow who shows up at his restaurant every so often with a few bags of wild mushrooms to sell. "In my naivete, I asked" where he got them, says Pellegrino. Only once, though. There was the expression on the man's face registering a grievous transgression of protocol.

"He just says, `Northern Virginia,' " says Pellegrino. "He won't cough it up."

Pellegrino takes the passenger seat in the Cherokee. In the back seat are Pellegrino's sales manager and girlfriend, Elizabeth Streit, and Neas. Sampson pulls out of Neas' driveway in Baltimore County and heads off to what all hope will be the Land of the Morels.

To a mycologist, the genus name might sound like a famous Italian cookbook writer: Morchella. All members of this genus are edible when fresh, not to be confused with genus Gyromitra or False Morel, which can cause severe abdominal pain, liver damage and, in extreme cases, death. Fortunately, the two are relatively easy to tell apart, although the novice is advised to consult an experienced morel hunter before eating anything found in the woods.

Gyromitra's cap is flatter on top, shaped a bit like a broccoli flower with brain-like convolutions. Morchella, with some varieties standing up to 5 inches high, has a pointier cap with a surface resembling honeycomb or sea coral. Cap colors range from black to brown to yellowish and pale gray.

The year offers morel hunters two narrow windows of possibility in spring and fall, a total of maybe six weeks. Add the savory, unusual flavor, the fact that nobody's yet figured out how to raise them on a farm, the high price of morels at the gourmet markets - about $30 a pound fresh, $200 a pound dry - and you have a recipe for a kind of mania.

"There's like a nuttiness," says Sampson. He's talking about the mushrooms, not the people who run around the woods looking for them. "There's a flavor you're not going to get with anything else."

At the Harbor Court, he says morels have been served with rabbit, with foie gras, with lobster bisque and, of course, there's the classic preparation of morels and asparagus sauteed in shallots, often with the addition of heavy cream. The textured surface of the morel cap takes sauces very well.

"They add a woody character to things," says Pellegrino, who imagines customers will see morels turning up on the specials menu at Corks anytime now.

The Mushroom Handbook reports that in medieval days, the folks of Central Europe were so nuts about morels they burned down forests to "secure the substratum which it seems to prefer." A cookbook titled simply Mushroom notes that the scorched earth between warring trenches of World War I made for a bumper crop of morels in no man's land.

Of course, there are information Web sites and bulletin boards where morel hunters post sightings and the results of the latest safaris.

Posts a fellow in Minneapolis, Minn., where the morel is the state mushroom: "Me and my girlfriend went and checked wild river state park and other locations around Winona and nothing yet, not that we were expecting it, but not a bad way to blow a Saturday."

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