by JAMIE NULL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
FALLS MILLS, VA. — —
Hard to believe, but a certain type of fungus is one of the most sought-after jewels of the forest. The morel mushroom, also known as a dry land fish, is prized for its taste, commercial value and mysterious locations.
Eric Staple, 32, of Falls Mills, Va., has been hunting mushrooms since he was a teenager. His favorite is the morel, but he does enjoy other edible mushrooms such as the portobello and the shiitake.
“As a teenager, my aunt and uncle invited me to tag along with them to go mushrooms hunting,” he said. “We would head to the forests of McDowell County to search for the elusive morel, molly moochers, miracles, among other names. Each year, I couldn’t wait until I was asked to tag along on this family adventure. There was something exciting about hiking through the woods looking for this mysterious and edible delicacy.”
As he grew older, he knew what to look for in the forest and found his own places to hunt. Staples said morels are found all over Four Seasons Country. He has hunted in Mercer, Summers and Tazewell Counties. Morels can also be found in other parts of the U.S., and in other countries.
The moral season is short, only lasting a few weeks. Staples begins searching in early spring, up until the beginning of May.
“Many people being looking once the dogwood trees, apple trees and daffodils begin to bloom. I have seen mushroom season begin earlier or later depending on the weather conditions and how soon winter leaves for good. I tend to start early and check back weekly,” he said.
Once he finds one mushroom, he knows the season has officially started for the year. The deciduous forests of the region are ideal locations. Staples searches old apple orchards or around dead or drying elm trees. He hunts for morels a few times a week, searching in different areas.
“Many times, mushrooms will mysteriously appear overnight, or after a soaking rain. It’s not uncommon to leave the woods empty handed. Either way, a nice hike in the woods is a great way to end a stressful day,” Staples said.
So, what does a morel look like?
“Morels have a distinctive sponge and cone like appearance. They vary in color from black, brown, gray and white, each representing a different variety. Morels are hollow inside and have a distinctive ‘earthy’ taste when cooked,” Staples said.
According to few websites dedicated to the morel, some suggest cooking morels in butter with pepper and salt. Staples said common methods also include rolling the mushroom in four or cornmeal, seasoning them with salt and pepper and frying them in oil. Others include frying the morels in pancake batter or a simple sauté with butter and garlic. Restaurants might stuff the mushroom with crabmeat or other ingredients.
The preparation options are endless with a little creativity,” he said. “I prefer morels fried in flour and dipped in ketchup.”
Staples has taken several friends and family on hunts throughout the years. He said morels are hard to find; it takes a “keen eye and patience.”
“Many people have walked past or even stepped on them,” he said. “They blend in with the ground cover of the forest — often popping up through the leaves, under brush or next to fallen timber.”
For many, the hunt is a family event. Amber Herald, 29, from Princeton, has been looking for mushrooms since she was 3-years-old. Her grandfather, David Thompson, would take her, as well as other family members to the forest.
“His favorite spot to hunt was in Wyoming County. My mom and her brothers and my cousins and I would spend the entire day walking and looking. We, the little ones, spent most the day playing. We would find bags full of mushrooms and share with the rest of the family,” Herald said.
Now, she takes her children, ages 2 and 5, on special hunting trips with her mom.
“I like spending time with my mom and kids. It nice to honor my grandfather’s memory and the morels taste pretty good too,” she added.
Princeton resident Sigrid Cahill, 84, grew up hunting mushrooms in Frankfurt, Germany. As a young girl, her family would go outdoors seeking different types of mushrooms.
“Everybody looked for mushrooms,” she said.
Cahill remembers looking for mushrooms after the rain and picking edible mushrooms in the fall, when it is cool and moist. In Germany, her family picked all kinds of mushrooms.
“They are fun to pick and they are healthy. They have a lot of vitamins,” she added.
Cahill, who married a sergeant in the Air Force, came to the U.S. in 1954. She continues to pick mushrooms in West Virginia, but is cautious.
“Here it is not as safe (as Germany),” she warned. “You surely have to know what you are doing.”
Staples said inexperienced hunters should exercise caution.
“Never eat a mushroom until you are 100 percent positive of its type. Many mushrooms are extremely toxic, resulting in sickness and even death if ingested,” he said.
The moral craze is not limited to the two Virginias. Festivals can be found all over the U.S., including Indiana and Michigan during the spring. Moral cook-offs and hunting competitions are also another way to celebrate the mysterious fungus, according to Staples.
“In larger cities, restaurants pay top dollar for fresh morels. In the spring, they can be found fresh at some farmer’s markets. Although I have seen dehydrated morels sold in certain grocery stores as a premium price,’ he added.
On the website www.moralmasters.com, one pound of fresh western moral cost around $72. Want more? Fifteen pounds will cost you $649.