Wild Ideas: Mushroom, miracle or merkle — the hunt is on!

Apr. 21, 2011
By
The wild morels have a great flavor complexity and are more interesting . . . because of the thrill of the hunt . . . and also because people are back in the woods. Life has begun again. So morels are as much a symbol of the beginning of Spring, a resurgence of life.
— Jack Czarnecki
“The Cook’s Book of Mushrooms”

Merkel, murkle, morel ― a Morchella by any other name would smell as funky. It’s that time of year when passionate Appalachian “shroomers” go a-huntin’ for this wrinkled “aristocrat of the forest,” as Czarnecki describes it.

Morels, like many species, tend to have a boom-and-bust cycle, and this wet spring has apparently brought a boom. Morel seekers along the Blue Ridge are finding them in the usual spots ― in orchards and under elm trees ― but also in yards and other unexpected places.

The morel has a remarkable place in Virginia’s natural, cultural and gastronomic history ― belying the fungus’ humble name, which comes from the Latinword for brown, maurus. Its flavor is described as nutty, steak-like, fishy, smoky, elegant and delicate. As one post at fungiforum.com put it, “Where a porcini is like heavy metal . . . morels are more like jazz.”
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Morels have inspired a variety of nicknames based on their appearance or taste, including dryland fish, honeycombmushrooms, molly moochers, sponge mushroom, hickory chickens and pinecone mushrooms.

Morchella esculenta, commonly known as the morel mushroom, is busting out all over thanks to this wet spring. Photo by Sasata via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Virginia Appalachians, they’re “merkels,” which comes from the pronunciation of “miracles” in a dialect common to the area. It’s spelled various ways, likely because the folks who nicknamed it were calling it that long before anyone bothered writing it down. Writer Dorothy M. Johnson suggests, in “The Day the Sun Came Out,” that the nickname came from the story of a mountain family that was saved from starvation by eating morels.

Merkel fans don’t need that story to believe the fungus is a miracle. As Sperryville glassmaker Eric Kvarnes recently opined via email, “They pop right up next to your doorstep, and it’s a murkel! Sauteed in butter and garlic, they’re reminiscent of seafood . . . and that’s a murkel, too.

“You have to have a little skill, and a lot of luck when you hunt murkels,” he adds, “and it probably helps your luck to be a person of good morel character.”

True morels ― those in the genus Morchella ― have inspired creation of societies, books and Web sites devoted to them, and have also led to poaching, and disputes over hunting territory. Retailing at more than $30 per pound fresh, the wild morel is pursued for more than a passion for its taste by some hunters.“Nothing but memories” is what one is supposed take from a national park, but when the spring crop of morels arrives, it’s not hard to find merkel hunters furtively making their way across park boundaries, or to see unfamiliar vehicles parked along the roads in the adjoining hollows.

I have to confess (at the risk of being burned at the stake) that I’m not a merkel fanatic. Ever since I was a kid and thought toadstools were actual amphibian furniture, I’ve been fascinated by mushrooms in the wild, but could always take or leave them when they appeared on my plate.

That’s not to say I’ve never been on a morel hunt. The first of these quixotic adventures was in northern California in 1971, when the counterculture movement was in full swing there. I had found lodging with a couple of earth mothers while I attended a special program in neuropsychology at Stanford.

One day they decided I should go morel hunting with them near Half Moon Bay. Shrooms aside, I’m always up for a walk in the forests along that glorious stretch of coastline and assumed we were going where it was legal to mushroom hunt. I realized my mistake when we were run off what apparently was private property by a shotgun-toting caretaker minutes into our unsuccessful search.

On to Sheridan, Wyoming, where I lived for several years in the 1980s. A friend wanted to hunt for morels in the Bighorn Mountains, just west of town. It was a beautiful spring day, so I went. We went to Turkey Creek, one of the first streams at the top, which offered a bit of the moist ground morels need in an otherwise dry landscape.

Soon after we started down the canyon, following the creek, we spotted a moose calf. Moose are more likely to be aggressive than grizzly bears, so we very carefully made a wide loop around the calf, keeping an eye out for the mom. Nervously cutting back to the creek, we found another lone moose calf. We decided no fungus was worth being trampled to death by a mad moose mom, so we called it a day and discretely made an even wider loop back up the canyon to the car, empty handed.

Since I came to Rappahannock County 11 years ago, I have yet to find any morels ― not that I’ve looked that hard. I’m just not that passionate about them. However, if you want to try to change my mind, I’m willing to sample some, especially sauteed in butter and garlic, or in a creamy bourbon sauce, or grilled alongside some fresh salmon . . .

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