From forage to feast, the morel of the story

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Morel mushroom season is about a month long—from mid-April to mid-May. Morel mushroom season is about a month long—from mid-April to mid-May.

For going on a week-and-a-half we’ve been waiting, watching the weather, hoping for the perfect combination of conditions that will spark an explosion of hidden life bursting from the forest floor. “Morel mushrooms are notoriously fickle,” explains 33-year-old Loren Mendosa, Lampo Neapolitan Pizzeria chef-co-owner and local morel hunting guru. “They’re kind of like the baby bear in the fairy tale that wanted his porridge ‘just right.’”

While the exact formula consists of a somewhat mysterious stew of variables, the season for these treasured delicacies is short, beginning somewhere around the second week in April and, in a best-case scenario, stretching into mid-May. “Regional folk wisdom says it follows spring gobbler season and that morels can be found when the poplar leaves are the size of squirrels’ feet, or when the red bud blossoms begin to open,” says Mark Jones, resident mushroom cultivation expert and CEO at Keswick’s Sharondale Farms. Which is another way of saying: when the daytime temperatures average above 60 degrees but remain relatively cool, with nighttime lows hovering just above 50 degrees for about a week. “That’s when the sap starts moving and the primary producers come online, and the trees start pumping sugars and juice into the ground,” says Jones. That surge of energy feeds the subterranean vegetative structures of fungi, or mycelium, causing threadlike roots of hyphae to grow and prime themselves for reproduction.

With those conditions good and ripe, throw in a warm, heavy rain and presto—in the manner of fruit trees producing plums or apples, the mycelium put out mushrooms. Only, in the case of the latter, the process is radically accelerated. “They come up overnight, growing so fast that, if you were watching, you could literally see them grow,” says Mendosa. “They’re here and then they’re gone, and some years they don’t grow at all. You have to catch them at exactly the right moment.”

This, combined with the fact that morels are incredibly tasty and have yet to be effectively commercially cultivated, makes the mushrooms a coveted culinary delicacy and, along with ginseng and truffles, a forager’s trophy crop.

The hunt is on

For a string of afternoons earlier this month, storm clouds roll dense and steel-blue over Afton Mountain. From my front porch swing I observe them with mixed emotion—one moment I’m swearing, the next I’m begging like a medieval farmer. Curse, pray, threaten, plead. Regardless, the weather does as it will. A week passes. Minutes after I’ve finally decided to throw in the towel and quit caring, on comes the rain.

Early the next morning I pay a visit to Shenandoah National Park. Tromping through a wilderness area off Skyline Drive I’ve circled on my map a somewhat bitterly labeled “Eric Wallace’s Secret Morel Spot #1,” and I watch the forest floor with an intensity I hadn’t known was possible.

“Every hunter worth his salt has his own spots and, because they tend to produce again and again, year after year, he’s probably not going to reveal them to anyone,” says Ben Kessler, co-owner of C’ville Foodscapes, tactfully rejecting my request to tag along for his first morel foraging mission of the season. Part of the fun is getting out there in the woods alone and learning the hard way, he added, encouraging me to embrace the adventure of discovering a new wild edible experience for myself.

Ben Kessler, co-owner of C’ville Foodscapes, says each hunter has his own go-to spots for finding morels, which tend to pop up in the same spots year after year. Photo by John Robinson
Ben Kessler, co-owner of C’ville Foodscapes, says each hunter has his own go-to spots for finding morels, which tend to pop up in the same spots year after year. Photo by John Robinson

He did, however, offer the following advice: “What you want to look for is damp, warm leafy areas around dead or dying elms, poplars, ashes or apple trees in areas where there’s very little foot traffic, animal or human. …Once you find a good spot, you want to try and really tune into the forest floor, to think in terms of pattern recognition, proceeding in a gridded search pattern, looking for slight variations. From above, the mushrooms blend into their surroundings and look just like pinecones. For the unseasoned eye, they’re pretty tough to spot.”

Treading delicately through the leaves I maintain a low crouch, scouring the terra for abnormalities. “Find one, find many,” I whisper to myself over and over, taking pleasure in my appropriation of the mantra Mendosa said he’d picked up from an old-timer who had, in turn, gotten it from his grandfather. “The trick is spotting that first one,” Mendosa had assured me. “When you see one, stop immediately where you are and take a good look around; chances are, there are a whole lot more. Once you find that first one, it’s like this shift happens—your eyes kind of adjust and suddenly you’re seeing them everywhere.”        

‘Forager’s gold’

If there’s anyone qualified to shed light on the pleasures, hardships and how-tos of morel hunting, it’s Mendosa. Growing up on Shannon Farms in Nelson County, he began foraging wild edibles as a toddler and recalls harvesting his first morels around the age of 5. “Like sleeping, eating and bathing, foraging was just a part of our lives,” he says. “It started with the adults teaching us what to look for and how to identify things, and then we started venturing out in little bands by ourselves.” Each spring, when the weather began to turn warm, Mendosa would join the neighborhood kids and disappear into the forest for hours, searching for ramps, sorrel, milkweed, stinging nettle and, yes, morels. “They were and remain sort of like the forager’s gold—they’re rare and hard to find, and when you do it feels absolutely amazing,” he says. “I remember once, when I was in maybe the seventh grade, my friends and I found a bunch and cooked up this big feast with wild asparagus, ramps and morels. We drank spring water and ate in the woods. It was pretty gluttonous!”

“They come up overnight, growing so fast that, if you were watching, you could literally see them grow. They’re here and then they’re gone, and some years they don’t grow at all. You have to catch them at exactly the right moment.” Loren Mendosa

As with most morel hunters, the desire to share his spoils with friends and family has followed Mendosa into adulthood. “Two years back, Loren found a boatload of morels and went out of his way to let the local culinary community know that, if we wanted some, they were available,” says Jeremy Webb, sous chef at Hamiltons’ at First & Main. “He has this great secret spot out in an old orchard somewhere in Nelson and that year it was jumping with mushrooms, and he wanted to make sure everybody had the opportunity to share in that abundance.” Abundance indeed. Enlisting the aid of fellow Charlottesvillian and mycologist Charlie Aller, Mendosa hauled in upward of 80 pounds of morels. “To put that number into perspective, I’ve been foraging for morels for more than 15 years and the most I’ve ever found is probably three pounds, which is basically the amount I need to change the menu and run a special at the restaurant,” says Webb.

Jeremy Webb, sous chef at Hamiltons’ at First & Main, says the restaurant generally sources morels from full-time professional foragers. Because foraged foods are unpredictable, the restaurant tends to make morels the focus of a daily special once a bounty comes in. Photo by John Robinson
Jeremy Webb, sous chef at Hamiltons’ at First & Main, says the restaurant generally sources morels from full-time professional foragers. Because foraged foods are unpredictable, the restaurant tends to make morels the focus of a daily special once a bounty comes in. Photo by John Robinson

But in Mendosa’s case, while certainly impressive, poundage is a secondary point. According to Webb, the example’s significance lies in what it reveals about the attitude of the city’s culinary community. “I’ve worked in restaurants in Richmond, Roanoke and other places, and I’ve never experienced the degree of communication and support that we have here in Charlottesville surrounding local foods,” he says. Over the course of the last decade or so, locally sourced foods have for most area restaurants become more rule than exception, says Hamilton’s chef Curtis Shaver. And the process has yielded an atmosphere of collaboration, as opposed to a competitive mindset. “It’s not so much that I take pride in being this great hunter who can find so much of this or that,” says Mendosa. “It’s more so a pride in the region, in the fact that we live in a place that produces these amazing mushrooms that are famous all around the world. …I take pride in the richness of the land and in doing my part to make that bounty available to friends, family, cooks and the patrons they serve.”

Priceless treasure       

Moral high ground aside, there is an economic element to foraging morels. Of the 200 species of edible mushrooms native to Virginia and the 25 that find their way into restaurants, morels are by far the most coveted. “Because you can’t grow them with efficiency in a commercial setting, because they’re hard to find in the wild, because the season is so brief and because they taste absolutely out-of-this-world, yeah, they fetch a pretty price,” says Jones. According to Webb, morels typically run $20 to $35 a pound, depending on availability. Which would make Mendosa’s 2015 haul worth about $2,800.

But how, exactly, do the mushrooms make it from the wild onto plates at your favorite restaurants?

“We typically like to deal with full-time professional foragers,” explains Webb, who says the pros tend to have applied for Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services permits certifying them to inspect the mushrooms for contamination and disease, thereby ensuring restaurants meet Food and Drug Administration regulations for serving wild foods. “They’ll come to the back door with a bag full of mushrooms or whatever and Curtis or I will go back there, take a look, agree on a price and potentially place an order.” At that point, the manager cuts the forager a check and the chefs get to work modifying the menu. In a best-case scenario, the mushrooms are served that night. Worst, the next day. “Foraged foods are unpredictable, so it’s kind of a pain in the neck to change things like that, but man, when you’re staring at a bunch of rare mushrooms that were picked just hours before, how can you say no?” says Webb, laughing.

In times of local scarcity, chefs turn to Cavalier Produce, which sources morels from Oregon-based foraging company Foods In Season. “Wild edibles entail less than 1 percent of our total business, but it’s a service we’re proud to provide, because we feel it helps keep our local restaurants at the top of the field,” says Cavalier’s operations manager Spencer Morris, who has been sourcing food for the company for 16 years. In 2016, from March 23 through the end of May, Cavalier sold 120 pounds of morels. “The foragers let us know when they’re coming in and we then have our sales representatives call restaurants and take orders. Typically, they’ll buy five or 10 pounds at a time.” Once orders are placed, Cavalier has Foods In Season overnight the mushrooms via FedEx.

Group of five gray morel mushroom (Morchella esculenta) fruiting bodies collected in a back yard in Indiana isolated against a white background

“The flavor is really meaty and delicate, but really it’s unlike anything else. …They pair great with cheese or ham, but basically I like to sautè them in butter and let them stand on their own so you can really taste the mushroom.” Jeremy Webb

Regardless of origins, once the morels arrive at the restaurant, here’s what happens. “I clean them by rinsing them and then placing them on a sheet or tray, removing any remaining bugs, pine needles or leaf debris by hand. Then I dump them in salted water for a quick second rinse,” says Webb. After that, the fun begins. “The flavor is really meaty and delicate, but really it’s unlike anything else. …They pair great with cheese or ham, but basically I like to sautè them in butter and let them stand on their own so you can really taste the mushroom.”

Other area restaurants known for making use of morels include Mas Tapas, Lampo, The Alley Light, The Local and more.

Finder’s keepers

After hours of prowling and many false excitements, I plop down on an old dead stump beside a fallen elm and ask myself what the hell I’m doing out here. “So much for Secret Morel Spot #1,” I mutter, imagining Kessler, Mendosa and Jones wearing spring-green Peter Pan tunics, skipping through a meadow of bright-yellow buttercups. Big colorfully woven baskets brimming with morels are hooked over their elbows. A red-checkered quilt lies spread in the meadow’s center. There’s an ice bucket with wine and champagne. Fine cheese. Bread. And Webb is manning a grill. By Job, the bastards are having a picnic!

I prepare to deal the stump a vicious toe bash, only then, a little to the right of my raised boot I spot… an abnormality. Looks like a pinecone, but not. Could it…oh yes. Yes, yes, yes! A morel snaps into focus. Like a fairy tower jutting from the forest floor, its conical top looks like a shriveled yellow-brown brain. It is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

“Find one, find many,” I hiss, reminding myself to focus. Blinking, I survey the area. And sure enough, like solving a tessellation, I see them everywhere. Hot joy pulses through my body. Mendosa and company give me a standing ovation.

“For me, it’s about the hunt—I love that moment when you find a bunch and you just get overwhelmed by the beauty of being in the woods and by the fact you’ve sort of just stumbled upon these amazing specimens,” Webb had told me days before. “Whenever I find a good-size batch for myself, I always end up calling friends. It’s not often I cook at home, but on occasions like those I put on some music, make a big fire, whip up a nice pasta and tell my friends to bring the wine and beer.”

Like a mendicant, I slip down onto my knees and bow before my first morel. Studying its strange curves, I think about how this fellow will taste and, yes, about those I’d like to share him with.

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