What is a morel mushroom. Morels are one of the most desired wild mushrooms in the world. They are praised for their flavour, texture, appearance. The part that we eat is the fruiting body of the underground organism called mycelium that has a complex symbiotic relationship with trees. Every spring mushroom enthusiasts, foraging chefs, and an ever growing group of commercial harvesters hunt these little forest treasures.
The Morchella genus has been the subject of fascination and debate for centuries. Mycologists (mushroom scientists) cannot agree on how many subspecies of Morchella there are and the nomenclature is constantly under revision. However, doesn’t “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?” Everyone can agree that morels are delicious and nutritious.
They have a big reputation. Morels are a bit of a rock star in the food world because they’re so hard to find, so expensive, and so exotic looking. They are usually reserved for fancy meals with fancy wine and meats. And they are so delicious! Even people who say they don’t like mushrooms often fall in love with morels.
Words can only go so far. They are often described as earthy and nutty, woodsy and toasted. The flavour is rich and deep as opposed, strong and distinct but not pungent. Their texture is meaty but in a tender way. Certainly a satisfying morsel of protein but not squishy or chewy. Morels don’t offend palates or overpower dishes, and yet they stand above and apart. Every bite of a meal with morels is the best bite.
Are Morels Good for You?
Absolutely. Morels are loaded with all kinds of nourishment not listed by the required nutrition facts table of Canadian Food labels. As morels tend to grow in rich soils they come packed with vitamins and minerals. While the nutrition can vary based on the soil they are found in, morels will generally contain significant amounts of Iron, Copper, Manganese, Phosphorus, Zinc, Vitamin D, Folate, Niacin, Riboflavin and a decent dose of Potassium, Magnesium, Calcium, Selenium, Thiamine, Vitamins E and B6.
Morels are also loaded with antioxidants, balance blood sugar, and repair liver-damage. Plus, they are high in protein and fibre.
Why are Morels so Expensive?
Morels are not farmed. The complex, symbiotic relationship that the morel mycelium have with trees is difficult to replicate in an artificial environment. It is frequently attempted, even at the commercial level, but if there were a truly reliable method to cultivate morels, global supply would have increased, demand would drop, and the wild morel industry fall apart.
This means that every morel that you eat has been picked by hand in its natural environment. And most likely that someone has traveled a great distance, hiked a great deal, perhaps camped remotely for weeks, battled the elements (mosquitoes, horseflies, rain, drought, etc.) and somehow managed to get that delicate specimen back to the city in decent condition for you to be able to purchase.
[UPDATE: Since the writing of this page China has developed techniques to farm morels. There is debate as to their quality and taste (consider the difference between farmed and wild salmon). This will surely have effects on the global morel market over time].
How are Morels Dried?
Drying morels is a bit of an art. The components are time, air flow, and heat. If you are lucky, it is warm and sunny enough that you can let the sun do most of the work. Just lay the morels on screens, with plenty of airflow, and rotate them occasionally. If it rains, or it is cool, or you are drying large quantities, you’ll need to get much more involved.
We let the sun work first and we finish with wood heat in a portable commercial drier. The product has a lovely wood aroma and flavour, and we can do a large batches that meet food safety standards. Be careful about drying too hot or too fast. You’ll cook the mushroom and you’ll end up with something that is difficult to rehydrate with less flavour. With experience, you learn to adjust the heat, airflow, and drying times to what each batch of mushroom requires.