Marvellous Morels!

Out of all the edible wild mushrooms, none causes a forager’s knees to go weak in anticipation so much as the Morel*.The sight of one of these incredibly rare fungi instills euphoria in those lucky few who find it and fills those who don’t with covetous, lustful thoughts. It graces some of the most exclusive plates in the top restaurants and should you want to sample some of its ethereal delights, you would have to pay anywhere up from £40 per 100g of dried wild morels. I’ve even seen websites that charge £89 per 100g!


So to those of us of more humble means, we are left to dream…..that one day, we too will find a morel.  I became so obsessed with this mushroom in my early foraging life that I used to dream it about it quite literally. I would come upon hundreds of the little black jewels on the woodland floor and just as I was about to tuck in, I would be rudely awakened by my alarm. This happened at least three times and on each occasion, I would wake up just before I could sample their delights. So I lost hope that I would ever find any true morels. 


Until last week that is. when I spotted some of these fabulous fungi growing in a little patch of woodchip. Funnily enough, morels have become far more common since people started using woodchip as a mulch.The chip comes from woodlands where this fungus is not so rare and when the conditions are right, it will send up its little brown clown hats out to explore the world.


Great care should be taken not to confuse this fungi with its poisonous lookalikes, Verpa bohemicaand Gyromitra esculenta. The morels pictured here are all Black Morels (Morchella Elatawhich are said to be the best tasting of all the morels. I’ll let you know once I’ve eaten them!


They are as good used from fresh as they are dried so I have dried my modest haul until I can find a recipe that will do them justice.On one of my earliest walks, we came across some semi-free morels which are almost as nice but better yet, more common than true morels. But I never went back to that woodland at the right time. So this Saturday, our walk will be held in this woodland. Who knows….. we may get lucky!


One other wild edible that is in season now is the flowers of Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara).  These flowers are easily confused with dandelion flowers but the stalks are very different. Dandelion flower stalks are smooth, even green and exude a white sap while those of coltsfoot are soft and pliable, exude no sap, and are covered in scales. If you look at the photos to the sides, on the left you can see the dandelion flower in the foreground with a drooping coltsfoot flower in the background, and a cluster of coltsfoot flowers on the right.


These are rather odd little plants because the flowers come up before the leaves. So you will just find clusters of flowers sticking up out the ground all on their own. It is only once the seeds set and the flowers start to die back (as in the photo to the left) that the leaves begin to come up.


The leaves were gathered in the early part of the last century, between and durng the wars, dried, and smoked as tobacco substitute in times of rationing. The leaves were used herbally as a treatment for asthma and the leaves would be burned and the smoke inhaled to help ease the discomfort of asthma attacks. Nowadays though, use of the leaves is restricted only to qualified herbalists and in some countries has been banned due to the prescence of trace amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that were found to cause liver damage in rats. They are still a component of many herbal cigarettes though and many people continue to use them in sensible quantities.


The flowers are still in use however and are an excellent herb for the treatment of chronic coughs and make a pleasing syrup. The flowers smell lovely, sort of like honey. But they must be dried or used within a couple of days of harvesting at most or they will go to seed by turning into fluff and floating away (you can see one starting to do this on my dehydrator tray). For this same reason, it is recommended to dry these in a very low oven (with the door propped open with a wooden spoon) or better yet, in a dehydrator as slow drying will also make them go to seed. The flowers can be used to make syrup and I recently found a recipe for some coltsfoot flower sorbet which I shall try to make with my next batch. This lot however I have dried to add to my winter herb tea blends when I start coming down with the inevitable sniffles.


* I choose to discount Truffles as unless you have a large trained pig and are somewhere in the countryside of Italy, the chances for one us mortals finding one of these in the UK is pretty much zero!

Muhaimina Said-Allsopp