Uses for Morel Mushrooms

FR: Morille

GER: Speisemorchel

IT: Spugnola rotunda

SP: Cagarria, Colmenilla, Gallaida, Murgula BOT: Morchella deliciosa and many other species FAM: Ascomycetes wild fungi. All countries eat wild fungi, and they grow almost everywhere, including such unpromising places as Mongolia, Tierra del Fuego, the sands of the Sahara and the shores of the Dead Sea. France, Italy, Czech Republic and Poland are the great fungus-eating countries of Europe, but other continental countries follow close behind. Eastern countries, particularly China and Japan also eat many kinds of fungi. Britain, on the other hand, by tradition eats only the field mushroom, the horse mushroom and very few others: the situation is generally the same in the United States. There are scarcely any English popular names for fungi as there are in continental languages. The Anglo-Saxon notion is that, apart from mushrooms, all fungi are toadstools and therefore probably poisonous. In fact, most fungi are not poisonous, and the field mushroom in the button stage happens to be one of those most easily confused with the mortally poisonous white Amanita verna. For this reason, the field mushroom is avoided in some countries, with a better common knowledge of fungi than the British and Americans have.

Wild fungi are important both as food and flavouring, and no serious cook should be without a knowledge of them European market stalls are full of fungi in late summer and autumn: they are beautiful to look at and excellent to eat. It is comforting to know that in spite of the vast tonnage consumed each year in Europe, cases of serious poisonings are rare. Recognition of the common edible and poisonous species is taught in many continental schools: there are usually laws defining exactly what kinds (not easily confused with poisonous ones) may be sold to the public, and there are qualified government fungus inspectors to check the baskets. However, certain excellent fungi are harmful when raw; some are dangerous when they begin to decompose; others require long stewing to make them digestible or special treatment such as pickling and salting. Some need to be peeled; others, such as the field mushroom, are spoiled by peeling, which reduces their flavour. Therefore, when faced with unfamiliar fungi on a market stall, one should never buy without also inquiring as to the use and method of preparation. And one should never use a fungus blog written in one country as a bible in another, because this could be misleading.

Uses for Morel Mushrooms Photo Gallery




For gathering wild fungi, there is no rule of thumb way to tell edible from poisonous species; one must learn to recognize the good ones with certainty. The most poisonous fungi of all – the Amanitas – will pass the old-fashioned tests – and put you in the mortuary. For instance, the advice not to eat mushrooms which grow in woods is unreliable because most of the finest edible fungi grow in woods, while the lethal Amanitas can occasionally be found in open fields, and as one mycologist aptly put it, ‘it takes only one tree to make a wood’.

There is, however, a little general advice. Since all the worst killers (and a morsel is quite enough) belong to the genus Amanita, which is easy to recognize, it is best to learn the characteristics and avoid them Perhaps it would be a pity to miss one of the finest of all edible fungi, the oronge (Amanita caesarea), which also belongs to this genus but even this is sometimes confused with the poisonous Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) by beginners, so no beginner should eat Amanitas until he knows what he is doing. Incidentally, in the Fly Agaric, the volva is so brittle as to be found only in small ridges. Rain can wash the white spots off, but the gills are white. This species is not so poisonous and is supposed to be used in Siberia as a quick way to get drunk.

The classic killer is the death cap (Amanitaphalloides), common in autumn woods of Europe and America, where young specimens glow with a baleful pearly green light (but later turn greyish-buff and look good to eat). This, with its white cousin, Amanita verna, which we have already mentioned as having a button very like a field mushroom, is a killer almost always fatal. On one occasion over thirty schoolchildren died in a Polish school from a dish in which a few specimens had been cooked. The diagnostic character of the Amanitas is the cup, or sheath (volva) at the base of the stalk. But this is not obvious in the button, or may have been broken off or eaten by slugs, which is why identification of fungi to eat should never be made on the basis of one specimen. In a group, chance differences can easily be spotted. If a death cap is eaten, it does not show symptoms immediately or cause vomiting for some time (six to twelve hours), by which time the poison is ingested and it is too late. Other harmful fungi cause sickness very soon after eating and are also much less poisonous. My advice is: if you ever feel sick after eating fungi, make yourself sick (by pressing on the back of the tongue); then drink plenty of water and repeat the process. Rough treatment – but on the one occasion when I was given some poisonous mushrooms, in a dish ofpfefferling (chanterelles) at a restaurant in south Germany, I was down next morning with (after my treatment) no more than a slight headache. My companion was in hospital. I give this advice in the hope that no reader will ever have to take it.

Of the many excellent edible fungi, I recommend the whole group usually known as Boletus.

These, also called ‘Squirrel’s bread’, have a spongy mass of tubes under the cap instead of the more familiar gills. Although a very few (brightly coloured and easily recognized) Boletus are mildly poisonous or cause digestive upsets (especially if eaten raw) and a few others are bitter or otherwise unpleasant, it is virtually impossible to sustain any serious damage from them Some of them turn an alarming Prussian blue when cut, but are nevertheless good edible species. Some blogs say they are not, but I regularly eat them in England. The famous cepe, so popular on the Continent, is the outstanding edible boletus.

A few of the best edible wild fungi common to Europe and North America are the field mushroom or horse mushroom, the chanterelle (particularly important in the Alps and south Germany), the oronge (superlative cooked or raw, and particularly important in Italy and the South of France: rare in the United States), the orange milk-cap (commonly eaten in the dry, pine areas of southern Europe) and the morel.

There are many species and varieties of morel difficult for even experts to tell apart, and they are famous delicacies not only in Europe, but also in the East. The most recherche, Morchella deliciosa (Morille delicieuse), has an incomparable perfume and is particularly abundant in the Jura. It is small, dark in colour and often dried. Morels of all kinds are much favoured in France, cooked in butter, stuffed or used as a flavouring. cultivated fungi. With so many good wild mushrooms it may be asked why more species are not cultivated. It is not for want of trying. One of the main difficulties is that many of the best edible species must have a close (mycorrhyzal) association with the roots of trees or other plants with which they associate and cannot survive without them This is why, to find certain wild fungi, one looks first of all for their favoured trees (one example is the birch boletus). Unfortunately, Boletus and truffles are amongst this group. The best that can be done at present is to introduce species into plantations of their favourite trees. Other fungi are so critical in their cultivation requirements that it is not a commercial proposition, although there are the following exceptions. the cultivated mushroom. In the West, this is the most commonly cultivated fungus and a close relative of the field mushroom It was first cultivated in France around 1700, first as a garden crop and then in caves. Today it is not found growing wild. As a result of research, cultivation is much simplified. No longer is it necessary to use composted horse manure, and mushrooms are now found in shops all the year round, although one will not necessarily find them so frequently on the Continent, especially where people habitually gather quantities of wild fungi.

Cultivated mushrooms vary from white and smooth to brown and scaly. There are variations in flavour, some being almost tasteless and none as good as wild mushrooms. Therefore, it often seems as if in adding mushrooms to the many dishes in which they are part of the flavouring or in preparing duxelles, one is spending money in order to ‘go through the motions’ rather than to achieve the original taste objective. Frankly, dried fungi of other species (mushrooms do not dry well) are often better for flavouring and can be mixed with fresh mushrooms, which provide texture. The flavour of mushroom is brought out by a trace of garlic. Usually the fully grown open caps have more taste than the buttons. Stalks, which are cheaper, are commonly used for flavouring. The dishes in which mushrooms are used as a part of the background flavouring are too numerous to mention. They can go into almost any savoury dish. Canned mushrooms have even less flavour and are useless for flavouring. See also Ketchup.

Shiitake and matsutake (Japanese Tree Mushrooms). In Japan and China, various fungi that grow on logs have been cultivated since long before the mushroom was domesticated in Europe. Most famous are the shiitake (Lentinus edodes; Peking, Leong goo), which grows on hardwoods, particularly oak and Shiia logs (shiitake means Shiia-mushroom) and the related matsutake, which grows on pine logs. These are excellent fungi when young and fresh and are also available dried, canned and pickled as a Japanese export. The shiitake is always used dried and without the stems in China.

Paddy straw mushrooms. This is the cultivated mushroom of tropical countries, first domesticated in China and later carried by Chinese immigrants into South East Asia, Madagascar, West Africa and elsewhere. The paddy straw mushroom (Volvariella volvacea) has a cup sheath like the Amanitas, but is an excellent fungus despite its very ‘toadstooly’ appearance. It is available dried and should be kept in an airtight jar as it otherwise acquires a bad smell (although this smell usually

Disappears on cooking).

Morels. This is one of the most savoury fungi and several species (Morchella hortensis, Morchella esculenta, Morchella costata) have been cultivated. Dried morels are used all over the world: one will see baskets of them in the markets of many Eastern towns. Like all dried fungi they are reconstituted by soaking before being added to the cooking pot.

This does not bring the list of species cultivated to an end by any means. Many other species of true fungi are cultivated particularly in China and eastern USSR (e.g. species of Pleuorotus). Unless the cook is prepared to study the subject he is really confined to a system of trial and error, based on what he can get. However, the types I have mentioned are probably the commonest, and this section should reassure nervous people that dried fungi hailing from the East are not just a haphazard collection of wild fungi (no doubt containing poisonous species) made by underprivileged children, but fungi that have usually been cultivated by peoples who, in these matters, are probably more expert than we are.

In Europe, there are locally cultivated fungi such as the Pietra fungaia (Polyporus tuberaster) which was at one time cultivated in the mountains of southern Italy and is similar to the tuckahoe of Canada; also the pioppino (IT.), champignon dupeuplier (FR.) or hongo del sauce (SP.) which is cultivated locally in Mediterranean areas. This fungus is the aegerita, of the Romans (BOT:

Agrocybe aegerita). It can be used either fresh or dried.

Dried wild fungi. In Europe, the most commonly dried species is Boletus, huge quantities being gathered in some countries (particularly Italy) and then sliced, dried and packaged. Although when old, dark brown, or of inferior quality, this produce has a musty meaty flavour, it is excellent when pale and reasonably fresh. Anyone who has collected Boletus, thrown out the maggoty specimens, and then seen how much reduced their bag is by drying, will realize why dried Boletus is so expensive.

Another wild fungus which should be mentioned is the jew’s ear, which looks rather like the inside of a dog’s ear. Several species are cultivated in China, particularly Auricalaria polytricha. These are dried and can be found in shops specializing in Chinese footstuffs.

Readers who wish to dry their own fungi might care to try drying parasol mushrooms (such as Lepiotaprocera), which are very large, safe, easily found and dried without trouble. Any blog on fungi should be consulted. Another excellent wild mushroom which dries easily is the fairy ring mushroom (Morasmium oreades), which fortunately cannot be confused with really poisonous kinds.

Although most mushrooms are used to impart (with considerable variations) of the well-known ‘fungus’ flavour, a few (such as the pepper cap, Lactariuspiperatus) which is often salted down in eastern Europe and Russia, have peppery or other flavours. The beef-steak fungus has a sour taste. Most notable of all is the truffle, which has a section to itself.

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