Mid-April Update: Morels True and False

 

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Morels laid out for inspection

A quick update to say that the morels have decided to stay for another week in Berlin-Brandenburg, giving me the chance to bring home this mixed quarry of black and ‘yellow’ morels (Morchella elata & M. esculenta). The weather has been alternately warm and sunny, then windy and rainy, which might just have provided the right climate – I gathered the second half of this batch in a hailstorm! Though one or two gave the game away standing quite out in the open, the choicest of the lot were tightly packed under the stems of low shrubs, almost completely hidden from sight.

The potentially lethal false morel (Gyromitra esculenta)

The potentially lethal false morel (Gyromitra esculenta)

What’s more, as if by way of testing my knowledge, this brain-like false morel (Gyromitra esculenta) saw me coming, nesting nearby the edibles, and so I used the opportunity to make a photo ID for others (it’s also posing as a snake in the grass in the first photo of this entry, top-left); if it is not specially-prepared but rather mistaken for a morel, consumption of this mushroom regularly leads to a severely unpleasant poisoning, which is not uncommonly deadly. Anyone with a grasp of the common Latin epithets of plants and fungi will notice the contradictory nature of the species name (esculenta = choice, delicious). A number of cultures (Scandinavian, Polish) prepare false morels to extract the poisonous gryomitrin (a toxin of red blood cells); still, its classification as a choice mushroom in the regular sense is no longer accepted. For the fact that it can grow among edible morels, it’s worth knowing how to tell them apart.

Left: Morel. Right: False Morel

Left: Morel. Right: False Morel. Note that colour is no sure indicator; false morels can also be light and dark brown.

So now my mind is spinning as I think of what to do with this sudden gift from the mushroom gods, and I am just as thankful for the gift-reminder of the potentially-deadly find; after al, it is just as important to encounter as its edible likeness. Happy foraging!

 

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Red-stained Hands

What will these hands ne’re be cleane?

Macbeth V, 1

The carnal fruits of summer are close to ripening, and, surveying my mental foraging map of the city, I suddenly felt a little over-faced with the amount of stuff that would soon be past its very best. A consistently warm spring has rushed things on a bit, and, being away between the second and third weeks of the month, it was necessary to be in many places at once, or almost at once, when going out on a city forage.

With my now-completely-mobile basket, I planned a route which would enable me to visit four or five sites before dark. I didn’t manage to get to all of them in time (which in itself turned out to be a great help), mainly due to one small oversight – with no cover to the basket, the bike has to be ridden slowly and with the least shock manageable. Nonetheless, I saw that this would be the optimal way to get around the problem of foraging for things often sparse and spread out across the city. The first task was to visit a chain of serviceberry trees dotted all over my local district.

Ripe serviceberries

Picking serviceberries is a very manual job, as only the ripest of the ripe berries agree to come away readily from the stalk. You develop a kind of twist method after an hour or so of experimentation. Smaller shrubs have a poor yield, but the network of bushes I had become familiar with meant a few hundred grams of fruit could be had before riding on a minute or so to the next bush. Mature trees are far more productive, their spindly stems often drooping the fruit to around head height in broad ‘sheets’. Fruit from this height of the tree I found to be more plentiful than when climbing up to further branches. I also tried spreading a sheet under the branches and climbing up to shake the fruit down, a procedure which had little to almost no effect whatsoever:

No joy in shaking the trees either

So, without berry-whacker or sophisticated comb, I picked the fruit for a good few hours with the dark sky threatening thunderstorms, and the usual funny looks from passers-by. This second oversight ate so much into my ‘schedule’ that it was night before I arrived in the cherry tree-lined street full of embassy and ministry buildings. Outside the residential office of Lower Saxony in Berlin, I first tried my luck. A black cultivated cherry with a light bitter tang. A the drivers of a few ultra-modern rickshaw taxis looked on. The best method seemed to be to prop my bike against the tree, grip the trunk, stand with one foot on the seat, then hoist myself into the tree. This had two advantages: the small trees were easy to climb up into, where the fruit was riper, and there was no need to risk pulling down branches from the ground; the operation seemed relatively unassuming at street level, the bike seemingly being chained to the tree, and no sign of its owner immediately in sight.

Foraging where the guards carry guns: an upcoming trend?

Not that I was all that worried about reprisals from the authorities, but I thought perhaps the security guards of foreign ministries might take a disliking to people nestling in the trees outside their buildings. At one point the desk attendant of the Rheinish Palatinate bureau gave me a wave as I loaded the basket with plump red cherries outside his window. A few minutes later, two blacked-out VW Passats with blue signal lights on the roofs pulled onto the forecourt. The driver got out, saw the bike, then saw me. I had about two kilos of cherries at the time, and around a kilo of serviceberries to boot. He asked me if the cherries were ripe yet. I answered that many of them were. A moment later he was back in the car, pulling off of the drive, followed by car number two. I felt quite embarrassed to have expected anything more, and I think the driver knew it too. All the same, the Ministry of Stolen Fruit had let me off this time.

A dingy, conspiratorial photo of the evening’s bounty

So the ingredients for my summer cherry wine were gathered not without the usual strangeness of inner-city hunter-gathering. Though there had been no trouble or difficult questions from security, I sped home through the night as fast as the modified bike would let me, my hands stained with juice, thinking myself very dastardly and bold. I had around four kilos of fruit, which is now (hopefully) fermenting as I write. The bike-basket idea had been a huge pay-off, and I will definitely be using the same method when the time comes to follow my trails of walnut and hazel through the city in a few months’ time. Then the next morning, there came another reason for the red-stained hands:

I was initially quite surprised to see plenty of rabbits bounding all over the road outside my street, until I realized that the place was in fact a tiny nature reserve in the middle of the city. For the two years I have been living here, the cat has been gearing up for taking down the odd lagomorph. Evidently, he is finally up to speed, delivering with checkered regularity a warm, unblemished bunny in the early hours of the morning. For two years I’ve considered myself a vegetarian, having problems reconciling the concept of mass-produced meat. On being faced with fresh, wild, dead animal, I decided that my vegetarianism simply on the basis of the wasteful nature of meat production would be a cop-out, were I not able to do something to avoid wasting meat through blind dogmatism.

Anyone who has ever had cats will know there’s little I can do about the new deposits of fresh meat turning up on my doorstep at the moment. Perhaps he’s even testing my moral judgment by bringing me the bunnies. I decided to go along with it, and set my face to learning the butcher’s craft. The first rabbit was by far the worst, having never really had much to do with innards and decapitation personally. I was particularly upset about having torn and ruined the fur, as the bunny was so lean and skinny as to have more of this than actual meat. It took only a little more care and practice and familiarity with the way a rabbit is put together and taken apart; now I’m both puzzled and pleased to have had the chance to render meat, so to speak. The last bit of rabbit-quartering I did was pleasant, concentrated, and highly-rewarding, the last rabbit-eating was at least thought-provoking.