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The Digressions of dr sanscravat

Hunting for Morels

A few years ago, Chef Jonathan Zearfoss and I went morel hunting. It was my first guided morel hunt -- a perfect late afternoon in early May, armed only with a knife, a bag for the mushrooms, and a thick slathering of 100% DEET (crawling around in the woods is, after all, a good way to become intimate with deer ticks).

The first place we looked, at the base of some dead Elm trees, we found three cream-colored tubular stumps. Another morel-hunter had been there before us. This was a good sign -- at least it meant that the morels had finally appeared. Then my trusty guide found two blonde morels. I found nothing except an old black walnut shell that looked remarkably like a black morel.

We went to another promising site. Nothing.

We went to another promising site. More nothing.

We went to another promising site. Yet more nothing.

The afternoon was winding down, and we were beginning to lose our light, so decided to drive to one last spot where Jonathan had heard that morels might be found.

On arrival, we noticed a woman walking along a little wooded outcrop of lichen-covered stone, the kind of place where Wild Columbines nodded on mossy ledges -- exactly the kind of spot we wanted to check. What was worse, she seemed to be walking in the halting, stooped, patient manner typical of mushroom hunters. We waited, not wishing to intrude. While we waited, the woman's husband appeared, carrying a bag full of mushrooms. These people clearly knew what they were doing.

Apparently we were in the right place, but were -- once again -- too late.

Not wishing to concede to ignominious failure, we walked around the other side of the hill. Almost immediately, Jonathan cried out, "They're here -- just winking at you!"

I saw nothing.

"There's another!" he chortled.

I saw nothing.

I squatted, my face about sixteen inches from the fragrant dead Oak leaves. In a little hole, level with the tops of the leaves, was nothing -- or rather, something that looked like nothing. Black morels have a sort of matte black invisibility -- especially when they have not grown enough to protrude much above the leaf-litter. Suddenly my eye knew what to see. There were little spots of similar nothingness all along the crumbling stone wall.

In the next few minutes, we found a couple of dozen morels.

Whoopin' and hollerin', we took our prey back to Jonathan's house, made necklaces of their scalps which we wore while dancing around a Beltane bonfire, heathen flames revealing the demonic signs that we had painted on our glistening bodies -- Well, OK, we just washed the DEET from our hands and cooked the morels (sauteed in duck fat, with a little rabbit confit and chives) and served them over rice (which Jonathan had used for storing some truffles). Simple, but spectacular fare.

I saved a few for breakfast -- sweating them in butter, then adding a bit of St. Andre to fill a couple of omelets. My wife, Karen, was convinced that I was trying to poison her with vile toadstools as part of some nefarious plot -- but eventually broke down and ate them. She even admitted that she liked them. Within minutes we were hallucinating, then became numb all over, and an hour later we were dead -- our faces contorted into hideous masks of suffering.

Oh, sorry -- I must have drifted into Karen's fantasy for a moment.

Most of us were told, as children, to never -- under any circumstances -- eat any mushrooms we might find growing in the wild. It was clearly good advice, because we are alive today to share this article. However, in spite of what our mothers told us, not every wild mushroom is plotting to kill us. The trick is to be able to distinguish between those that will delight us and those that will destroy us.

The best way to develop this ability is, as I did, from an experienced mushroom hunter. Admittedly, not everyone is lucky enough to know such people. Fortunately, there are alternatives. Many excellent books and magazines can answer the beginner's questions (and debunk dangerous myths that could kill an inexperienced mushroom hunter).

However, the morel season is very short -- usually falling during the first two weeks of May (when Apple trees, Columbine and Jack-in-the Pulpit are in bloom, look for morels) -- so you'll need good information right away if you're going to safely hunt morels this year. Here are a number of excellent websites that will get you started:

Read more blather about morels.

Read still more of the good Doctor's writings.

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