Signalling the start of a brand new year for the wild mushroom season, the mighty morel mushroom is fast becoming a big talking point in UK restaurants. Commercially foraged in forests from the US to Turkey, and all across Europe towards the middle of its springtime season, these small tree-like fungi certainly bring that wow factor to the plate. Produce Business UK details what makes this visually spectacular wild morsel the mushroom of the moment
A reasonably cold winter and a good start to spring-like weather with some decent rainfall has all worked out marvellously for the new mushroom season, meaning spring mushrooms are popping up around one month earlier than last year.
It’s a common and modern misconception that mushrooms are purely an autumnal product. Of course, they are absolutely big news in autumn and it’s the time of year when all the major mushroom varieties become available. But the few spring mushrooms out there are also worth their weight in, well, mushrooms.
First on the scene and relatively hard to spot on the forest floor, is the morel mushrooms, which is a pretty penny, costing up to £100 a kilo when availability is low and demand is high. Proving very popular in the US and Canada, morels are featuring heavily on menus from New York, San Francisco and Vancouver to Madrid and Paris; offering an exciting focus to spring menus with its nutty, spongy and soft, almost honeycomb appearance.
If you like mushrooms, you’ll love morels. More and more, UK chefs are putting morels on their menus as consumers look for the strange and interesting, yet tasty and traditional. Morel mushrooms tick a lot of boxes for suppliers and caterers too, thanks to their fresh, wild flavour, good looks and heritage credentials all rolled into one little mushroom.
Latin name: Morchella.
Season: Available from March to early June, morels first start to come on stream from Asia, but those indigenous varieties are said to have little taste, which may have something to do with the journey they must travel to get to our plates, as well as their actual makeup.
The first European morels usually hail from Turkey, after which they’re found all over Europe, as well as the US and Canada. This indicates their production benefits from a combination of temperature, moisture and shelter.
Appearance: Some people say morels look like little oval brains on a stick, whereas others describe the variety – in a far more appetising way – as like a black or brown dry honeycomb. They can also be likened to coral, and they certainly don’t look quite like any other mushroom.
Morels do have a top but you can’t really call it a cap, although it’s where a cap would normally be on a mushroom. The top is pocketed and hollow and completely attached to a stem that’s also hollow, and always brilliant white, albeit a little muddy.
The top can be dark black, off-white, yellow or dark brown in colour, which indicates the different varieties within the Morchella type.
Morels are usually sold mixed as the colour change is mostly minimal from one mushroom to the next and the taste difference is slight.
Flavour: With a strong nutty, forest flavour, when it comes to shouting out about this variety morels are more about their sturdy yet spongy texture. Chefs and diners love their aroma and earthy taste – and with looks like these, they can definitely be the star of the dish or even the menu.
Harvest: Morels are mycorrhizal, which basically means they grow in harmony with tree roots, sharing nutrients as well as a home. They’re found around the bottom of trees and, in fact, anywhere tree roots are growing underneath the soil – like a lot of other mushrooms.
The variety grows in clusters, sprouting from the mushroom fruiting body beneath. When you come across them, you’ll find a few together, but locating them in the first place is more troublesome, particularly during short days with low light and considering the coveted items blend in all too well with their forest floor surroundings.
For commercial foragers – having to supply kilos on end to expectant restaurants and suppliers – finding morels especially at the beginning of the season can be problematic. But this somewhat sporadic availability adds a bit of excitement and mystery to the season. Usually by mid-season, however, there is usually a steady supply of morels on most days.
Preparation: Intricate and delicate, these mushrooms are time consuming to clean because of their hollow stature, which is a ripe breeding ground for bugs and naturally harbours dirt and dust from the earth it is has grown out of. They can be delicately washed in lukewarm water if used whole, or cut in half and wiped clean with a damp cloth.
Cooking: Like a lot of mushrooms morels are regularly paired with pasta, cream and garlic, and make for tasty sauces and gravies. They are quite meaty in texture and are often cooked with roast meats and steaks, in particular veal and game, as well as their spring vegetable partners asparagus, peas and wild garlic.
Veal sweetbreads, asparagus, morel mushrooms and pea purée
Crab stuffed morels
Morel, asparagus and Parmesan spaghetti
Venison and morel stew
King salmon morel gnocchi
Cream of morel mushroom soup
Wild halibut with morels, wild garlic and Jersey Royals
Bresse chicken fricassée with morels
Nutrition: Vitamin B and D, potassium and niacin.
Did you know? There’s a National Morel Mushroom Festival. As prized to Michigan in the US as asparagus is to some areas of the UK, morel mushrooms have their own three-day event in May every year, taking place in Boyne City.
Next big thing: Differentiating between the different colours of morels.