By Gary Kenny
By the time you read this column, I’ll have done what I do every year in mid-to-late May. I’ll have foraged our acreage for my family’s annual wild edibles repast.
Searching for edibles is a particularly apt task this year. Because these pandemic times have exposed the fragility, the soft underbelly, of Canada’s food system.
With the resurgence in recent years, too, of interest in local foods, more people are recognizing the value of wild edibles. They can be a novel and healthy complement to a sustainable food supply.
Most of us are unaware of the cornucopia of wild foods on offer in local fields, forests, and roadsides. Many of our ancestors knew, though. When I was a boy, my maternal grandfather would take me on excursions along country back roads in search of wild mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, ramps (wild leeks), naturalized asparagus and more.
I’ll be forever grateful for Gramps’ legacy. Because of him I developed a life-long passion for Mother Nature and her bounty.
But even our forebears’ knowledge was dwarfed by that of Indigenous peoples. Historically they were, and are becoming again, encyclopedias of wild edible and medicinal plants.
We can learn from them. And we should.
Now for this year’s menu:
• Appetizer: Smoked trout pâté with black walnut crisps
• First course: Morel mushroom bisque with black walnut bread
• Second course: Dandelion greens, watercress, and wild violet salad sprinkled with toasted black walnuts and tossed with lemon balm vinaigrette
• Third course: Roasted wild turkey, fiddleheads sautéed with wild leeks in butter, wild weed pesto
• Dessert: Black elderberry pie served with mint tea
Oh, I forgot to mention the yellow birch wine.
All food items on the menu will have been gathered within one square kilometer of where we live; most from the property that we steward.
Our menu gets a little more varied each annum. This year’s black walnut crisps and bread will have been firsts.
Confession: I shamelessly robbed a midden of black walnuts deposited in one of our outbuildings by some resident red squirrels last fall.
No need for concern, though. I didn’t leave the squirrels food insecure over the winter. Some 30 black walnut trees grow here and the squirrels never succeed in gathering all the nuts. If their cupboards ever did run bare, they could easily find more nuts under the snow.
Extracting the nut meat from the cement-hard walnut shells is especially labour-intensive. I can’t reasonably expect the squirrels to help because they always know when I raid their larder. So a hammer is always a must.
Of all the wild edibles to be found here, morels are far and away my favourite. Nothing is more delectable than morels sautéed in butter. “Rapturous sex in a frying pan” is the way one enthusiast described their flavour. I wouldn’t go that far. But morels are indeed exquisitely delicious.
Morel nomenclature is comedic. They are variously called merkels, miracles, Molly moochers, hickory chickens, sponge mushrooms, haystacks, conehead brains, and dryland fish.
My favourite is “hickory chickens,” a nickname that originated in Appalachia. Apparently folks there find morel mushrooms around hickory trees, and say that, when battered and fried, the morels taste like chicken.
Morels don’t taste like chicken. They taste better than chicken. Nonetheless we’ve taken to calling our annual feast the Hickory Chicken Repast.
I’ll add another moniker to the list: find-me-if-you-can fungi. Morel hunting – and make no mistake, it’s a hunt, not a simple gathering expedition – can be frustrating because morels are intentionally elusive. You can read all you want about under which species of tree or in what kind of soil they can be found. Chances are you still won’t find any. I think the morels themselves are complicit in the telling of those deceits.
The dark-coloured morels are especially adept at hiding. One can be right in front of you, peeking out from under last season’s leaf litter, and you won’t see it. Not until I discover that first morel do my eyes adjust, enabling me to more easily find the next one.
If there is a next one. Some years morels are hard to come by.
White morels are less successful at concealing themselves. Their larger size and colour, which is really more creamy than white, exposes them. Two years ago I happened onto a mother lode of white morels. Dozens of them were growing in the long grass around an elm tree that had died the previous year.
There were so many I was able to gift a few to a neighbour. I don’t usually do that. Morel hunters are characteristically stingy. Ask one where his/her favourite morel hunting spot is and you’ll know what I mean.
I’d like to say that it’s impossible to mistake a morel. But that might be dangerous. There is such a thing as a false morel, I’ve read. I’ve never seen one, but they apparently exist and are toxic.
Some people liken morels in appearance to honeycomb. But the cells of honeycomb are precisely uniform in structure. Not morels. To me, they look more like brain coral.
Kits to grow your own morels can be purchased online, and I’ve been considering ordering one. But part of the allure of morels is the hunt. Even if it’s in vain. Which it often is.
So where would the fun be in growing your own morels?
For a long list of recipes for wild edible dishes, visit: https://www.ediblewildfood.com. ◊