Article and photos by Danielle Taylor
For a few short weeks each spring, hunters clued in to the secret prowl the woods throughout the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region in pursuit of their elusive quarry. Rather than wild game, however, these foragers seek the obscure morel mushroom, a mouthwatering delicacy that sends even the laziest couch potato out to scour the forest floor.
Offering a nutty, savory flavor and an intoxicating aroma when cooked, morels provide a culinary experience found in high-end restaurants and country home kitchens, but not known by the average diner. They mostly grow at the feet of dead and dying elm trees, old apple trees, and poplar/tulip trees, but they can also be found under cherry, black walnut, and pine. Unfortunately, the season only lasts a few short weeks each spring.
“I look for them around here from Tax Day to Mother’s Day,” says Rusty Orner, steward of Quiet Creek Herb Farm and School of Country Living just north of Brookville. “This year has been a little colder, so the season will probably last until Memorial Day. It has to be a warm season for them to appear by Tax Day.”
Due to morels’ rarity, short season, delicious flavor, and the fact that you can’t just buy them in the produce section, there’s a whole culture around them, and for many dedicated mushroomers, the prize at the end of the journey is only part of the appeal. The annual quest for their discovery and collection is seen by many as a friendly but competitive sport, and morel hunters tend to guard knowledge of their find sites with absolute secrecy. So, the trick is to find your own patch. If you find them once, you’re likely to find them in the same spot year after year.
If you decide to go after morels, it’s critical to educate yourself on the different types of mushrooms you may find in the woods, as poisonous lookalikes can make you severely ill. True morels have a distinctive pockmarked, honeycomb-patterned cap and appear pitted inward, and they have another clear tell: “If you cut one in half and it’s hollow from base to tip, you’re safe,” Orner says.
False morels have wrinkled caps and appear to bulge outward, and they have wispy, webbed fibers within the stem. Consult a regional mushroom guidebook and/or an expert forager if you aren’t completely sure of what you’ve found. Gently rinse or soak them to remove any dirt or bugs that may have worked their way into nooks and crannies, and fry them up in butter to enjoy their pure goodness.
When asked to describe their flavor, Orner smiled. “Brown sugar gravy, I’d say.”
To learn about other exciting places, events, people, and more in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region, go to VisitPAGO.com or call (814) 849-5197.