In the ups and downs of foraging for food, fruitless searches are compensated by those magical moments when you find something very special. That’s when hasty harvesters can make ghastly gaffes, the worst of which may prove fatal. ‘Caring to inspect before daring to ingest’ ensures you enjoy your present find and live to enjoy future ones.
Superficial similarities between something that is delicious and good to eat and something else that is poisonous lure people to their deaths every year. It’s not just those who are starving and desperate for food who take such risks. In Europe hundreds die each year as a result of eating fatal fruits or toxic toadstools. What’s particularly sad is that the very finest and most abundant of free food is not difficult to identify with certainty; you just have to know how to unmask the fraudsters.
Take Morels, Morchella esculenta, for example – I do, eagerly, any time I am lucky enough to find them. If you are making a mushroom sauce to go with red meat, there is no finer mushroom. I’ll come on to that later, but it’s crucial to know what False Morels can do, and even more importantly what they look like.
The toxins in False Morels damage the liver and central nervous system, and sometimes kidney function is impaired too. Many people have died from eating these imposters, which are most deadly if eaten raw or only partly cooked. (Tests have now shown that the toxins are not necessarily destroyed during the cooking process, as was once thought.) It does not help at all that mycologists have given this fraudster the scientific name Gyromitra esculenta - the Latin esculenta means ‘full of food’!
Fear not. If you can tell ups from downs and peaks from troughs, you can easily distinguish between Morels and False Morels. The cap of a Morel is covered in numerous round-bottomed troughs separated by narrow ridges, whereas the False Morel’s cap has a brain-like network of round-topped ridges with narrow valleys between them.
In the Algarve, Morels usually appear from February through to early April. Autumn foragers might prefer the easy pickings of Parasol mushrooms Macrolepiota procera with their large and somewhat scaly caps. The baddies wear much the same headgear as the goodies, in this instance. Shaggy Parasols, which can cause serious poisoning, sometimes have larger scales on their caps, but you can’t rely on such a variable feature to sort the good from the bad. Look instead for snakeskin patterning on the stem. If it’s present you have found the Real McCoy; if not, it’s almost certainly a Shaggy Parasol Chlorophyllum rhacodes and best left for the slugs and bugs to fight over.
Almost every other good edible mushroom has toxic lookalikes. That’s why ‘know thy enemy’ is a good general rule… not just for generals but for foragers too.
The proof of the picking is in the eating, and so now…
If you are lucky enough to get a reasonable quantity of these magnificent mushrooms (any kind of morels will do other than the False Morel!), make Morel Sauce. Only the best beef, pork or venison fillet or a meaty fish such as turbot will do as an accompaniment to it!
If Black Morels spring up from the woodchip mulch in your flowerbeds or herbaceous border, they are telling you something: make Morel Sauce and freeze it for future use!
The ingredients listed here make sufficient sauce to serve four.
• 250 grams of Morels, roughly chopped. (Dried and reconstituted morels will do just as well, of course, but use less – around 50 grammes.)
• a shallot or a small onion
• a clove of garlic (crushed)
• a knob of butter for frying
• half a wine glass of cognac
• 100ml of double cream
Heat the butter and fry the shallot until it is soft. Add the chopped Morels and fry gently for about five minutes. Taste the cognac to make sure it is all right – you can’t afford to take risks when something as precious as Morels is involved.
Add the cognac, cover the pan tightly and simmer for around 10 minutes. Remove the saucepan lid and continue simmering until you have reduced the liquid down to about half its original quantity. Add the double cream, and reheat. If you have used double cream (or French Créme Liquide - easily available from supermarkets in the Algarve), it is OK to re-boil the sauce. Single cream will separate if boiled. Season and serve over the cooked steaks or fish.
After the meal, don’t be in too much of a hurry to do the washing up. Check that the cognac is still okay before putting the bottle away for next time.
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