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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Foraging and Re-reading the Natural Landscape

A rather grumpy old literary figure once said that there is no reading, only re-reading. I have begun to realize that the ability to revisit the seasons (as, say, one might revisit a few precious, favourite lines throughout life) is a privilege enjoyed almost exclusively by the naturalist, and, by the same reason, by the forager. Both derive a large part of their pleasure not just from discovering but from re-visiting the scenes and drama of the natural world, which with every successive year become richer in detail, more interrelated, somehow even more meaningful.

For the forager this quite complex process happens, of course, more or less by itself, by virtue of ‘just being there’, so to speak, by making it our business to know when the cranes have flown back from their wintering grounds, when the colt’s foot starts flowering, when the first brimstone butterflies are in the forest, when the sap starts rising in the trees. For this reason I believe it to be a considerable step towards being more ‘grounded’ to be able to know, however roughly, if these seasonal events are happening earlier or later than in previous years.

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Despite the lack of much rain the few-flowered leek was out very early this year, forcing up through the beech leaves and often skewering them, providing, as already noted, my own personal symbol of spring. We harvested bags of the stuff and watched it blend down to a pickling jar’s worth of fresh purée, which led me to the thought that it would be a pretty sensible idea to ‘adulterate’ it in future with a good bagful of the freshest ever nettle tops, which were out as early as the intrepid onions.

As we were waiting for the bus to take us out to the woods, we noticed that the birch tree by the bus stop was dripping from above, soaking the ledge where we’d rested our bags. I’d been hesitating about whether or not to tap some birch sap as I was planning a trip to south Germany, but this sight seemed prophetic, and the next day I packed my birch sap tapping kit and tested a mature birch on our city garden plot. The flow from the old main trunk was gentle but when I tapped a thinner but well-established off-shoot the drip rate was instantly double or triple of the former. I mention this because the usual advice is to tap mature birches, but the logic that ‘girth’ equals good sap flow has not always proven true for me.

1cm tubing sealed with birch tar (birch what? See previous post)

1cm tubing sealed with birch tar (birch what? See previous post)

So, the sap was flowing, I would be leaving the following day for south Germany; it was now a birch sap race to get a useful amount and to use it/preserve it in some way (not like last time; see original birch sap post for evidence of my utter hypocrisy). There are enough sources on the internet detailing the method of acquiring birch sap, so there is no need here for another. Besides, writing about foraging is not foraging; by the time you read this, the birch sap season will be over. So, what am I getting at? Only that it’s well worth the effort to go beyond the idea of or the reading of foraging and do it, even if the risk might be travelling five hundred miles on a regional train with over  a gallon of sugary groundwater.

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Luckily the birch was also in a hurry to get its leaves out, so I managed to take just about 5l in about 24 hours. My plans are to follow birch sap aficionado Fergus Drennan‘s method of making a light birch sap wine, concentrating half of this to attempt to provide the conditions for ‘catching’ a wild vinegar mother. Remember my going on about the importance of being able to source indispensable household items from the wild (in the post about birch tar)? Well, I think vinegar was one I mentioned, and my mum says you can use it for almost everything, and even bought me a book about doing just that. So it’s a mini-project that’s got it all; vinegar; my mum; vinegar mother. As I can make out, it’s acetobacteria that are active here, turning alcohol into vinegar (remember the gangster-philosophy/GCSE Food Technologies advice of Marcellus Wallace gives to Butch in Pulp Fiction). Like wild yeasts which are of course not bacteria but fungi, acetobacteria is airborne and can be ‘trapped’ using different techniques. Rest assured, mine will not be the modus operandi of the chemist but more likely borrowing those of the wild food experimentalist.

If you live with non-foragers, mark your precious sap to avoid potential disasters

If you live with non-foragers, mark your precious sap to avoid potential disasters.

 

A weekend in the south of Germany and then a return to late-March Berlin was the environmental equivalent of fast-forwarding to early summer and then back again over the space of a weekend. On a stroll in the spring rain I was met by true wild garlic, hogweed, common cowslip, wild ginger (Asarum europaeum), lords and ladies (Arum maculatum), woodruff, horsetails (which I just found out can be used to polish tools and fine-sand wood-craft objects), and, most importantly, butterbur (Petasites hybridus).

Butterbur, or pestilence wort

Butterbur, or pestilencewort

I started this entry trying to impart something of the feeling of interrelatedness one inevitably ends up being daubed with in the pursuit of experiencing some of the more shy natural phenomena (especially the edible ones), and I tried to suggest the practical nature of this accumulation of sensibility to one’s environment. As an obsessive mushroomer, when I see butterbur, I think of one thing: morels (Morchella spp.). In my geographical/ecological/meteorological playing field, the presence of birch, butterbur, dog’s mercury, cleavers and other such spring ephemerals speaks of a kind of hallowed morel biotope, and, as I have haver had the pleasure of finding any, I have scoured the available regional data/accounts/notes on morel finds for what is now a good four years. In all this time I have found perhaps the withered stems of several early false morels (Verpa bohemica) before the tiny window of opportunity (here in dryish Brandenburg, maximum one month) has closed on the year.

 

This season there were moments of pure conviction that I had found a lens refracting the triple surfaces of birch, butter bur and cleavers into the reality of a nest of morels; alas, the vision was entirely prismatic, and my searches came to nothing, while online mushroom fanatics in my vicinity posted photos of the secret but consistent mother lode. Foiled again. I did however find the skull of a red fox (Vulpes vulpes), as I always find animal remains when looking for morels, which did lead me to the conclusion; if you happen to be an amateur zoologist trying to complete his collection of small woodland animals, and you keep finding nothing but morels on your expedition: – show me your spots, and I’ll show you mine.

The elusive logo-mushroom

The elusive logo-mushroom

Many of your will have noticed the proliferation of web-presence and logos and official stuff. Grunewald Foraging is going seasonal full-time. Please e-mail me and book a foraging walk at your leisure, and do share this with friends if you think it will please them. Happy foraging.

 

 

Chicken Nuggets

It’s May and though I find it hard to believe, the vast swathes of few-flowered garlic (see previous post) have withered almost to nothing, the warm weather having made a short season out of what seemed a limitless resource. Only yellowing leaves and those paradoxical bulbils remained, though now much bigger and much easier to harvest, having ruptured the sheath-like structure around the flower. The veggie caviar idea works much better with these more substantial fruits, and the flavour has also intensified with the ripening.

Ripe bulbils after cleaning

And what about the ‘true’ wild garlic’s (Allium ursinum) May arrival? Well, thanks mainly to the vigorousness of few-flowered leek, it doesn’t seem to have a season in Berlin. Online forums of keen Bärlauch hunters are mainly an endless scroll of mistaken identifications (people naming ramsons locations that are actually few-flowered garlic spots), or read like tirades against the intruding few-flowered leek, as if it were personally responsible for wiping out the true Bärlauch. Most of the people who can remember harvesting real ramsons say that the true wild garlic is now nowhere to be found around the city and its surrounding woodland. I managed to encounter oneplant on pushing through some particularly dense foliage on today’s hike:

Ramsons, the true wild garlic (Allium ursinum)

Though I was happy to see that true wild garlic is still making its way in the woods, albeit having gone underground, Sunday was really about one thing only: morels. Saturday came the spring rains and a tender warm night, and in the early hours it continued to pour intermittently. I set out for the Kiesgrube hoping that the free-draining, sandy and poor soil might just support the kind of treasure I was looking for. The whole way through the forest the air was decidedly shroomy, but more the strange apricot note I associate with chanterelles than anything else, and it took an hour to calm down into the right rhythm for seeking out morels. Not that I have ever had the honour of finding any before, but I imagine it requires a similar level of concentration to the one needed in order to find horn of plenty (Craterellus cornucopioides), a similarly reclusive little mushroom. I covered every square foot of the ‘grube before finally accepting my biggest fear: no underlying chalk to the sand, the only real comfort allowing you to say to yourself ‘if they are anywhere, they’re here’. On the crestfallen march back, however, in the way of consolation the woods offered me a chicken:

Chicken of the woods, or the sulphur shelf

Because of the location of today’s intended bounty, I walked pretty much the exact reverse circuit of my regular ‘small’ Grunewald route. Even with my aching, morel-strained eyes, this wonderful chicken of the woods fungus (Laetiporus sulphureus) was visible through the trees, growing from the last tree stump on the route, usually the first thing I encounter on my ‘small’ route. Having left enough to be sure that the fungus can regenerate, it still weighs almost a kilogram (2lbs). The fruit body had also engulfed part of a young bramble plant, which was completely fused between the three tiers of chicken-like flesh. Through the cotton bag I had planned to use for the hypothetical morels, it happily leaked its viscid juice all over my jeans on the train home.

The sulphur shelves themselves

Even besides this runner-up prize, the scouring of the Kiesgrube revealed other important foraging opportunities, namely the locating of a tucked-away apple tree in blossom. Apart from the lack of chalk, I could not have been better positioned for morels, if you believe the literature, than to be on light sandy soil, on a warm, wet day in May, at the foot of an aged apple tree. However, there were none to be found, leading me to the conclusion that coming across an apple tree on light sandy soil in wet weather in late spring, should perhaps indicate to me not the fragile hope of spring morels but rather the near certainty of autumn apples.

Wild or at least feral apple, possibly an escaped cultivar

When I think of the amount of concentration required to stay focused in hunting the elusive morel, I can’t help but contemplate how many other treasures pass me by, both edible and aesthetic. On any other day, I would have rejoiced to find, in one swoop, a huge chunk of edible bracket fungus, and also the site of a future apple haul. I know this only reinforces the fact that foraging is about staying flexible and opportunistic rather than doggedly trying to hunt down a rare treat, but my thirst for morels is incessant, having developed to the state of a sort of affair of foraging honour. Though I myself wish it were otherwise, it will not be slaked by the commiseration of chicken nuggets for dinner.

Breaded chicken of the woods, a la Mc Nonsense