Morels, merkel (US),
morille (French), Speisemorchel (Germany), spugnola bruna (Italian), colmenilla (Spanish)
Common morels (Morchella esculenta) are the earliest spring mushrooms in many regions of the US, and called “molly moochers” in the Appalachian areas. They are unmistakable as their spongey, honeycomb-like caps have a dark brown cone shape. The many crevices in the caps and hollow stems often harbour dirt and insects. Therefore, with this mushroom, it is one time that washing them, instead of just wiping them, is definitely advised. Morels tend to grow in older-growth forests, abandoned orchards, gardens, along roads, and on sandy stream banks. Well camouflaged, they tend to blend in with the surrounding landscape. Although generally found in the spring soon after the crocus flowers bloom, they can appear in any season. Morels also favour terrain where chaotic disturbances have occurred, as following a forest fire, road cuts, excavations, and fallen trees. In fact, during the 18th century in Germany, peasant women had to be restrained from lighting heath fires in order to encourage the growth of the morels as their enthusiasm often created forest fires. A similar tale is also told of Provence. Traumas that tend to retard the growth of other organisms seem to accelerate the growth of the morel.
Morels are particularly plentiful in the midwest US, where morel festivals are held in such places as Boyne, Michigan, in the spring. However, morels are not limited to North America. They also flourish in most temperate parts of the world, including Europe, China, India, and Turkey. The morel family is an important source of income for commercial mushroom pickers and in great demand by restaurant chefs. Unfortunately, the American tendency is to deep-fry these beauties, which all but eliminates the nutty, slightly smoky flavour and its mushroomy qualities. Morels should always be eaten cooked as raw may cause in some people such allergic reactions as dizziness and mild tremors when consumed at the same time as alcohol. Some edible species include M. rotunda, found on heavier soil and in more than one form, and M. vulgaris, which grows on richer soil. Some similar-looking mushroom species are highly toxic.
Other morels include te following:
Black morel (M. elata) is commonly distributed over much of the world, but especially Europe, Asia, and North and South America. The black varieties are particularly difficult to see in the forest as the head looks very much like a fallen pine cone. Appearing in early spring and well into summer, the black morel is often found in high alpine meadows, and fruiting much later than mushrooms at a lower altitudes. It can be found under conifers and shrubby undergrowth.
Common morel, gray morel, yellow or golden morel (M. esculenta) is usually found at lower altitudes than their relatives and favour warmer spells of weather, especially during cold winters. It is one of the most commonly hunted mushroom, occurring widely in a wide variety of habitats. A common variation is the Burnside morel (M. atromentosa), which occurs up to two years after a forest fire and reproduces prolificately.
Half-free morel (M. semilibera) often fruits in sandy soil along streams and lakes. The name results from the sponge-like cap, which is only partially connected to the stalk near the top. This differs from those of common morels, which are completely attached to the stalk. The mushroom is edible raw, but is fragile and prone to collapsing and crushing after it is picked.
White morel (M. deliciosa) is, as the botanical name suggests, one of the tastiest and prized members of the morel family. Sometimes growing to gigantic proportions, it often fruits under old fruit trees and may appear right through to the end of the year in mild climates. Old-growth forests also make an ideal environment for them to absorb vast quantities of nutrients and moisture. This giant species is native to the Pacific Northwest and can weigh several pounds.
False morel, gyromitra, snowbank false morel, conifer false morel, edible false morel, snow mushroom, brain mushroom
(Gyromitra and Helvella sp.)
False morel belongs to the same family as the true morels, but needs to be treated with extreme caution. In fact, this mushroom, or any resembling it, should not be eaten at all, even though many celebrated chefs use it. None of the false morels have a cap which is both pitted and integral with the stem like a true morel, but there is such a resemblance that casual inspection leads to mistakes. Sold in Europe and North America, there are more deaths from Gyromitra poisoning, especially in Europe, than anywhere else. Until 1967, when the isolation of that particular poison took place, many thought that long cooking or blanching would detoxify the mushroom; but this is not the case. It is possible to boil off some of the toxins, but the fumes can then be hazardous. All mushrooms in this species contain a compound that breaks down with water to become MMH (monomethylhydrazine). What lulls connoisseurs into disbelief is the “all or nothing” effect of the mushroom as each individual seems to have a different threshold for the toxin. When that threshold is crossed and symptoms begin, there is no gray area. Adding to this game of “Russian roulette” is the fact that the toxin levels vary from mushroom to mushroom and from year to year. John Trestrail, retired chairman of the Toxicology Committee of the North American Mycological Association and managing director of Spectrum Health Regional Poison Centre in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who handles the majority of this type in the US sums up the danger very nicely, “Persons who decide to continue this gastronomic gamble should have the number of their regional poison centers engraved on their eating utensils”. (Schneider, p. 302)
Various explanations have been offered as to why a group can eat this mushroom and only one falls ill, while the rest remain unaffected; or why, in a number of varieties, only one will be toxic while the others in the same family are perfectly safe to eat. A plausible explanation has emerged as a result of the American space program. It seems that the toxic principle of this mushroom, gyromitrin, breaks down into another called monomethylhydrazine, which is used as rocket fuel. Investigations into sickness of rocket fuel handlers showed that at certain low levels this toxin had no effect; but in higher doses or a series of small doses, bad effects were produced. If several people eat Gyromitra together but only one falls ill, it is generally because that person had eaten the mushroom the previous day or had eaten more than the others. The toxin is soluble in water and readily evaporates so can largely be dissipated through boiling and discarding the water AND not inhaling the vapours. However, total dissipation may not always be complete, so it is best not to take chances and just avoid the mushroom entirely. Those of the Helvella species are generally regarded as safe, as long as they are picked young and have been dried or cooked before being eaten. Once again, they are best avoided. Some contain small quantities of helvellic acid that, if eaten raw, will produce symptoms like Gyromitra poisoning.