I get email alerts when news articles appear on a variety of things, not surprisingly, including mushrooms. For the last while, a good number of these have been American and about Morels. We get them in this country too but they can be difficult to find. All these alerts eventually got my attention and I thought I would find out more.
Morels are perhaps one of the most prized mushrooms for cooks coming in price-wise below only truffles. Their flavour is nutty or steak-like. They can be used in sauces, sautéed on their own or served with pasta and cream sauce. They are also great on a pizza! Anywhere you can use a regular mushroom, you can use morels, but with better results.
One report says, “Morels are America’s mushroom, more so than any other”. This could be “because they’re widespread, they’re easy to identify, and they come up in the spring, giving people a reason to get out and enjoy warm weather after a long winter. Or, it could be they’re popular simply because they taste so good“. Interest in them is enormous, far greater than in this country’s mushrooms. The harvest is a very valuable one, possibly 10 million dollars per year for the North West Territories alone with some pickers making more than $500 cash per day! To manage the harvest, and harvesters, there is often permitting, random inspections in the woods and checks of restaurants. June marks the unofficial end of morel mushroom season in the US and it’s been a bumper season in many areas thanks to rain and warm weather at the right time.
Morels should not be eaten raw. They must be cooked through completely or they can make you ill. Heat is required to destroy a toxin in the same way as you have to cook kidney beans. You can also be ill if you overeat very large quantities or occasionally if you consume them with alcohol.
According to reports, even people who have eaten morels for years can develop an allergy to them and begin to experience gastric problems. Unfortunately, once that happens it’s going to continue to happen again and again.
Some wild mushrooms that look similar to edible morels are very poisonous. Even experienced pickers have been known to harvest “false morels” by mistake. The toxin produced by false morels is described as “basically rocket fuel” – and can cause liver damage and seizures.
Recently, again in the US, a family of four had to go to the hospital after eating poisonous mushrooms. Investigators say they used a phone app to figure out if what they gathered was edible. They say the family misidentified the mushrooms using the app. You should never rely on just one source or photo to decide if a mushroom is safe to eat.
Morels like the areas of forest burned in previous years. It is not difficult to find these areas. Wildfires are common in interior Alaska; an average of over 700,000 acres burns each year and in a “bad” year over 2 million acres can burn – a bit bigger than the whole of Devon!
A United States Department of Agriculture and United States Forest Service report published the results of a study on after-burn yields. They found the dispersal of spores during a “major event” is massive. Events that significantly disrupt an environment include timber harvesting, insect infestation or wildfire, according to the study. Larger yields may last for the first two years after the event.
While I would have said safety, according to one source, the first rule of morel hunting is to not talk about morel hunting! Most mushroom foragers will not divulge their secret spots. Once you give up your spot, it is gone forever.
The rules on commercial collection vary from state to state and which government department owns the land. Some state landowning bodies have “blanket bans” on commercial collection while others, for example, in Alaska, charge $100 for an annual land use permit for the commercial harvest of mushrooms. 2 day and 30 day licences are available too. In addition, a fee of $0.20 per pound, which is 5 percent of the current average fresh price per pound, is charged for mushrooms.
Commercial collectors are required to have their mushroom permit in their possession at all times when gathering mushrooms. If you don’t get a permit or don’t carry your permit with you, you can be fined. Requiring a permit to harvest morel mushrooms for commercial use helps “ensure public safety and environmental responsibility“. It also ensures that forest users contribute to “sustainable and responsible use of natural resources“.
In some states authorities look further up the supply with restaurant owners who buy from an uncertified local picker risking a $20,000 fine for buying from an uncertified picker. “The reason wild mushroom foragers are required to be certified as mushroom experts is a matter of food safety and public health”
The large influx of commercial harvesters is carefully managed with designated camp sites to avoid garbage, camp fires and sanitation problems. In some states closed areas are defined each year and roads closed for the duration of the morel season.
Again rules vary but as an example, in one state a harvest of three gallons per day is free and a permit is not required. Maps are published showing “potential personal use mushroom harvest areas”. The maps show the general areas of past fires where mushrooms may or may not be growing.
In some states, people harvesting for personal use are required to make a vertical cut down the stem of each mushroom or remove the stem immediately after harvest. This makes the mushrooms worthless as a commercial product. Rangers will inspect the contents of people’s mushroom baskets to check this is being followed.
Some states have woken up to the economic opportunity that is offered in the form of morel mushrooms. In the North West Territories they anticipate this harvest could generate as much as ten million dollars per year. The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment there has worked to prepare residents to take advantage of this opportunity and keep some of these revenues within the territory. They have hosted significant numbers of morel mushroom information sessions in communities where the impacts of the anticipated season are expected to be greatest with nearly 1,200 residents participating. These sessions covered potential harvesting areas, methods for gathering and storing morels, and best practices for selling and marketing their harvest. They also emphasized the message of harvesting in a way that is safe, legal and respectful of the environment and Aboriginal peoples, whose lands some of these mushrooms will be on.
A Morel Mushroom Harvester’s Handbook and field guides have been produced to ensure pickers have adequate information at their disposal when they venture into the harvest areas. On-site, “walking workshops” have also been run in areas where the mushrooms have appeared to provide hands-on experience for those interested in harvesting. Communities have welcomed the pickers hosting community barbeques for them.
As on all issues, not everyone sees it the same way, with headline of “Are morel pickers more trouble than they’re worth for N.W.T.?” and articles saying “It’s like a mushroom rush out there“.
Are there any lessons to be learned for Europe here? Concerns about the sustainability of harvesting edible fungi arise with claims that the productivity of many species of edible fungi is declining. Most of these concerns, however, involve species of fungi that fruit in the same place year after year. Because morels fruit prolifically for only a year or two after disturbance, they present a different set of questions.