The Morel of the Story
Beautiful spring day. Check.
Horseback ride with best friend. Check.
Mushroom hunting with said best friend, boyfriend and forager extraordinaire. Check.
Fresh morel mushrooms sautéed with shallots and sherry for Sunday supper with my honey. Priceless.
Recently I was quoted as saying that there are few things I find more rewarding than cooking for and eating with friends. I must amend that statement: most rewarding of all is foraging for the ingredients of one’s supper, making it, and downing it in the company of loved ones (or loved one).
Last Saturday after a couple of hours of manual labor in my mother’s garden, I reached out to my in-the-know morel contacts. Michel Jean, proprietor of the Stissing House, fantastic dancer and all around outdoorsman/epicurean, was busy prepping for a Derby Day party he and his wife Patricia were hosting that afternoon. Tony Henneberg, renowned local painter of birds and lover of women was working on his latest series of watercolors and preparing to tie one on at said Derby Day party. With no guides to guide us, Sebastian and I set out with the dogs in the woods that border our house in search of some champignons. It was useless. There were no dead elms (or elms at all for that matter) on our property, and the only thing we were laden with upon our return home were ticks; about 47 of them. Sebastian was apoplectic about the ticks on his faithful hound Finklestein and I was anxious. Without meaning to I had made finding morels the purpose of my weekend. I knew I wanted to write about it for the Lovage, and moreover, it was something I had always wanted to do. I had foraged for mushrooms before, but never morels, and never so close to home. They’re my namesake for Lord’s sake. Some gentleman, many generations ago, somewhere over in Europe had found the most morels or the biggest morels, and from that day forth had been known as Mr. Morel! And then maybe his great-grandson who was really into—I don’t know—pickles, or woodcarving, or basket-weaving had changed the spelling of his name to get out from under the weight of his great-granddad’s reputation, and create his own identity so to speak. Or maybe he was just a really bad speller. At any rate, those mushrooms have something to do with my heritage and the way I saw it, it was my duty to honor that long ago family tradition, and find as many enormous morels as possible (so that I could put them in my belly!).
Tony promised he would show us the way on Sunday and of course he delivered. We met at his house in Pine Plains, and while he washed his inflatable kayak by the back door of his studio, he informed us that we were within a meter of a morel at that very moment. This was too much for me. Frantically I started looking around on the ground, looking for that beautiful, wrinkly hooded little ghost, but I missed it entirely, and when Bat saw it, to my chagrin it was right next to where I had originally been standing.
Armed with an Opinel, a Swiss Army and my mother’s paring knife (which was destined to be a casualty on our journey, never to return home), we set out. Tony knew the woods we were in like the back of his hand, and even more remarkably knew where all the decaying elms—of which there were plenty—were. He showed us how to look in a circle all around the rotting trunk, and he let us pilfer our finds, taking neither morels nor credit for leading us to them (this is characteristic Tony generosity). There was a wonderful ebb and flow to it. For the first 20 minutes of our forage we found oodles of morels, and then for a long while, nothing. Once, under an aged elm tree, I lifted up a large leaf thinking it would be just like a morel to hide under it, and to my delight I found a lovely little orange newt! At one point, after a lull, Tony led us to one so voluptuous, so curvaceous, that if this morel were a woman, she’d be Anita Ekberg! The satisfaction of wandering off on my own, identifying an old, decrepit elm tree, and tenderly circling it, taking care of where I placed each foot, to then find a graceful little fungal being or two or three was joy-making. The walking in the woods on a balmy day, the sun filtering through leaves and branches to the forest floor’s mossy quilt; the sound of friend’s squeals of delight getting fainter and then nearer again; wild rose bushes clinging to my britches; the growing weight of my plastic bag as I found my precious fungal gems, it was heavenly. My excitement had been disproportionate, child-like, and irrational, and yet was completely worthy and in accord with the satisfaction I felt.
That evening, when we got back to New York, we were exhausted. I was walking stiffly with bowed out legs like a cowboy after my brief and easy ride, having not been on a horse since last fall. We considered for a moment how easy it would be to order-in, but then we came to our senses.
Sebastian minced some onions, shallots and finely chopped some garlic. I filled a pot with some salty water to boil. Sebastian sautéed the onion, shallots and garlic in some butter with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. I cut the morels in half lengthwise and brushed the insides clean with a pastry brush. Bat added a little olive oil, the mushrooms and some thyme to the sautéed onions and shallots, let these cook for less than a minute; then he deglazed with some sherry. While the tagliatelle finished cooking, Bat added cream to the mushroom mixture and let it reduce. Not including the foraging, the dinner took about 20 minutes to make, and sitting at our table together, so tired all we could really do was grunt and say yum in between bites, it was one of my most fulfilling meals.