Gary Allen wants to take you out into the woods to pick mushrooms
March 2, 2011
I met Gary through my friend Andy F. Smith. To say that Gary is a food historian only scratches the surface. In the short time that I’ve known him, I realized this is one of the only people who I would trust to take me into the woods to seek wild mushrooms. Dear readers, please take his advice, it’s almost Morel season!
Hunting Morels, in the Woods and on the Web
Written by: Gary Allen
A few years ago, Chef Jonathan Zearfoss and I went morel hunting. It was my first guided morel hunt — a perfect late afternoon in early May, armed only with a knife, a bag for the mushrooms, and a thick slathering of 100% DEET (crawling around in the woods is, after all, a good way to become intimate with deer ticks).
The first place we looked, at the base of some dead Elm trees, we found three cream-colored tubular stumps. Another morel-hunter had been there before us. This was a good sign — at least it meant that the morels had finally appeared. Then my trusty guide found two blonde morels. I found nothing except an old black walnut shell that looked remarkably like a black morel.
We went to another promising site. Nothing.
We went to another promising site. More nothing.
We went to another promising site. Yet more nothing.
The afternoon was winding down, and we were beginning to lose our light, so decided to drive to one last spot where Jonathan had heard that morels might be found.
On arrival, we noticed a woman walking along a little wooded outcrop of lichen-covered stone, the kind of place where Wild Columbines nodded on mossy ledges — exactly the kind of spot we wanted to check. What was worse, she seemed to be walking in the halting, stooped, patient manner typical of mushroom hunters. We waited, not wishing to intrude. While we waited, the woman’s husband appeared, carrying a bag full of mushrooms. These people clearly knew what they were doing.
Apparently we were in the right place, but were — once again — too late.
Not wishing to concede to ignominious failure, we walked around the other side of the hill. Almost immediately, Jonathan cried out, “They’re here — just winking at you!”
I saw nothing.
“There’s another!” he chortled.
I saw nothing.
I squatted, my face about sixteen inches from the fragrant dead Oak leaves. In a little hole, level with the tops of the leaves, was nothing — or rather, something that looked like nothing. Black morels have a sort of matte black invisibility — especially when they have not grown enough to protrude much above the leaf-litter. Suddenly my eye knew what to see. There were little spots of similar nothingness all along the crumbling stone wall.
In the next few minutes, we found a couple of dozen morels.
Whoopin’ and hollerin’, we took our prey back to Jonathan’s house, made necklaces of their scalps which we wore while dancing around a Beltane bonfire, heathen flames revealing the demonic signs that we had painted on our glistening bodies — Well, OK, we just washed the DEET from our hands and cooked the morels (sauteed in duck fat, with a little rabbit confit and chives) and served them over rice (which Jonathan had used for storing some truffles). Simple, but spectacular fare.
I saved a few for breakfast — sweating them in butter, then adding a bit of St. Andre to fill a couple of omelets. My wife, Karen, was convinced that I was trying to poison her with vile toadstools in some nefarious plot — but eventually broke down and ate them. She even admitted that she liked them. Within minutes we were hallucinating, then became numb all over, and an hour later we were dead — our faces contorted into hideous masks of suffering.
Oh, sorry — I must have drifted into Karen’s fantasy for a moment.
Most of us were told, as children, to never — under any circumstances — eat any mushrooms we might find growing in the wild. It was clearly good advice, because we are alive today to share this article. However, in spite of what our mothers told us, not every wild mushroom is plotting to kill us. The trick is to be able to distinguish between those that will delight us and those that will destroy us.
The best way to develop this ability is, as I did, from an experienced mushroom hunter. Admittedly, not everyone is lucky enough to know such people. Fortunately, there are alternatives. Many excellent books and magazines can answer the beginner’s questions (and debunk dangerous myths that could kill an inexperienced mushroom hunter).
However, the morel season is very short — usually falling during the first two weeks of May (when Apple trees, Columbine and Jack-in-the Pulpit are in bloom, look for morels) — so you’ll need good information right away if you’re going to safely hunt morels this year. Here are a few excellent websites that will get you started:
Other Interesting Places to Hunt for Mushrooms
There may be a local mushrooming organization near you. If so, consider joining — these clubs often have guided field trips to mushrooming sites. They’re fun and you’ll learn a lot about our friends and foes among the fungi.
These last few weeks have taken me down Tiki Bar paths and Lower East Side dreams. I’ve been out to Brooklyn and it’s becoming more familiar to me. My photography has really taken hold and I’d like to share some of it.
My friends over at Tuthilltown have been very busy influencing new flavors by coaxing them into familiar ingredients. The medium is their used Bourbon casks. The flavor is the finest Maple syrup from Quebec. The bottle is a work of art, you don’t want to pour it anywhere but into a spoon, then supped. I find it very difficult not to weave it into cocktails… Deconstructed it is a cocktail in the guise of a bottle of Maple syrup. This stuff is so unctuous that the aroma of Bourbon lingers for some time in the air. The nose is sugar, caramel, chopped nuts, toasted hoe cakes, made from stone ground groats. It has the color of camel coat- it warms your belly in a hearty laugh- this is good stuff!
Warren Bobrow is a mixologist, chef, and writer known as the Cocktail Whisperer. In 2010, Bobrow founded “Wild Table” for Wild River Review and serves as the master mixologist for several brands of liquor, including the Busted Barrel rum produced by New Jersey’s first licensed distillery since Prohibition.
Bobrow has published three books on mixology and written articles for Saveur magazine, Voda magazine, Whole Foods-Dark Rye, Distiller, Beverage Media, DrinkupNY and other periodicals. He writes the “On Whiskey” column for Okra Magazine at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and has written restaurant reviews for New Jersey Monthly.
His first book Apothecary Cocktails, was published in September 2013; and immediately went into a second printing. In 2014, he published Whiskey Cocktails. He was born and raised in Morristown, NJ, on a Biodynamic farm.
Warren Bobrow in this Edition
COCKTAIL WHISPERER, Editor
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The Cocktail Whisperer asks Anthony Bourdain Four Questions about Scotch
The Five Questions: Andrew Bell, American Sommelier
The Five Questions Catherine Reynolds
The Five Questions: Lincoln Henderson (Master Distiller)
The Five Questions: Natalie West (Foppiano Wines)
The Five Questions: Randall Grahm
The Five Questions: Sustainable Sushi
A Glass of Bourbon, Branch, and History
Midnight in the Bronx: Visit to Hunt’s Point Wholesale Fish Exchange
A Modern Day Absinthe Alchemist
A Summer Cocktail Party for Artie Shaw
Tales of the Cocktail: New Orleans, Louisiana