Morels: Portrait of a fungus

Described as smoky and mouth-watering, complex, smelling of fresh soil and raw milk, earthy, nutty, meaty, buttery, and decadent, the morel has been used in cooking since time immemorial. This mushroom is as much a sign of spring as robins, flowers, and young lovers. The ancients related morels to the cycles of the moon, using them to predict flushes of the mushroom, when wild bumper crops seemed to spring up from nothing overnight.

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There many, many varieties of morels, from the genus Morchella, referred to by even more names, typically based on color (e.g., white morels, red morels, yellow morels, gray morels, & c.). The black morel common to Europe won the hearts of chefs developing Western cuisine, but varieties have been discovered and dined upon all over the globe. Although morels aren’t quite as well known and sought after as truffles, the culture that surrounds hunting these jewels of forest floor is robust–and making local news. To fully understand the significance of the story, it helps to know a bit more about the interesting mycological specimen, the morel.

It’s believed that morels evolved from a type of yeast as recently as the last ice age. Being such a young specie, morels haven’t developed the same advantages that many other mushrooms have, like the tough skin and strong, fibrous stalks. While this isn’t the best strategy for survival or reproduction (morels break easily and often), it produces an absolute culinary delight.

It also makes it impossible to cultivate the fungus artificially. This certainly isn’t for a lack of trying, either. Because morels are so young in terms of a specie, they are too unstable to be grown outside of their natural habitat, and attempts have resulted in strange Frankensteinian fungi that look nothing like their natural brethren. In the early 1980s, a young and eager grad student in California published a landmark paper reporting that he had successfully coaxed these mysterious mushrooms to fruit in a lab. Before he was able to pass his secret on to the world, he was killed in a (completely unrelated) mugging. His method was tried by such big names as Domino’s Pizza, but the only claim to success came from a farm in Alabama reporting thousands of pounds of morels produced weekly. The farm has long since gone out of business, and however successful they may have been, the most popular varieties of morel continue to resist cultivation.

Naturally, morels fruit most abundantly on freshly disturbed earth–and few things disturb the earth of forests like fire. Morchella Tomentosa is a morel from western North America that is known for its post-fire flushes (and less so for its fuzzy black appearance). This and other morels have been reaping the benefits of dry winters in the West, which have been making the area more prone to large wildfires.

Last year’s Rim Fire near Yosemite Valley in California left the region scorched and prime for morel hunting–except, that is, for one minor detail: for safety reasons, the area is closed to all hunters and foragers. The debate over whether or not this is a reasonable closure has heated up, driving morel prices up right along with it. For a morel hunter, burn years mean bumper crops. It’s estimated that a good hunter can net over five pounds of morels from a single acre, which equates to around $200 at current market prices and a lot more now that prices in the area are climbing. Local morel hunters has protested that the closure is unfair, going so far as make claims that there have never been any deaths related to morel hunting.

Unfortunately for those claiming this, it simply isn’t true. Morel hunting after a major burn can be incredibly dangerous work. The forest floor, usually covered with a healthy layer of pine duff, can be extremely slick when wet, and it often sports a layer of ash concealing the slick subsurface, which morel hunters refer to colorfully as being slicker than goose excrement. Logs and fallen trees burn into sharpened charcoal spears that can make an innocuous slip on the slick ground fatal in an instant. Indeed, morel hunting is a tricky business that involves probability, statistics, and gambling with the fates themselves on unforeseeable events like wildfires.

At Beaujolais, we honor this unpredictability by featuring the morel in new dishes almost every single night. Whether they’re accompanied by cheese, shallots, brioche, or some other well paired delicacy, our sautéed morels will have you wanting to stalk the woods for these prizes on a moonlit early summer’s eve.