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|A black morel in Poland|
Dill. ex Pers. (1794)
(L.) Pers. (1801)
~50 worldwide (see text)
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Morchella, the true morels, is a genus of edible mushrooms closely related to anatomically simpler cup fungi. These distinctive mushrooms appear honeycomb-like in that the upper portion is composed of a network of ridges with pits between them. The ascocarps are prized by gourmet cooks, particularly for French cuisine. Commercial value aside, morels are hunted by thousands of people every year simply for their taste and the joy of the hunt.
Morels have been called by many local names; some of the more colorful include dryland fish, because when sliced lengthwise then breaded and fried, their outline resembles the shape of a fish; hickory chickens, as they are known in many parts of Kentucky; and merkels or miracles, based on a story of how a mountain family was saved from starvation by eating morels. In parts of West Virginia, they are known as molly moochers. Due to the partial structural and textural similarity to some species of the Porifera sponges, a common name for any true morel is sponge mushroom. Genus Morchella is derived from morchel, an old German word for mushroom, while morel itself is derived from the Latin maurus meaning brown.
The fruit bodies of the Morchella are highly polymorphic in appearance, exhibiting variations in shape, color and size; this has contributed to uncertainties regarding taxonomy. Discriminating between the various species is complicated by uncertainty regarding which species are truly biologically distinct. Some authors suggest that the genus only contains as few as 3 to 6 species, while others place up to 50 species in the genus. Mushroom hunters refer to them by their color (e.g., gray, yellow, black) as the species are very similar in appearance and vary considerably within species and age of individual. The best known morels are the "yellow morel" or "common morel" (M. esculenta); the "white morel" (M. deliciosa); and the "black morel" (M. elata). Other species of true morels include M. conica, M. vulgaris, and the half-free morel (M. semilibera).
Early phylogenetic analyses supported the hypothesis that the genus comprises only a few species with considerable phenotypic variation. More recent DNA work has suggested more than a dozen distinct groups of morels in North America. An extensive DNA study showed three discrete clades, or genetic groups, consisting of Morchella rufobrunnea, the yellow morels (M. esculenta and others), and the black morels (M. elata and others). Within the yellow and black clades, there are dozens of individual species, most endemic to individual continents or regions. This species-rich view is supported by studies in Western Europe, Turkey, Israel, and the Himalayas.
Morchella tomentosa, a fire-associated species described from western North America, commonly known as the "gray morel", may also deserve its own clade based on DNA evidence. M. tomentosa is easily identified by its post-fire occurrence, fine hairs on the surface of young fruiting bodies, and unique sclerotia-like underground parts.
A recent (2012) study described 19 phylogenetic species that occur in North America, while molecular phylogenetics suggest that there are more than 60 species of Morchella worldwide. Over 20 new species were added to the genus in 2012 by Philippe Clowez and colleagues.
Morchella species appear to have either symbiotic mycorrhizal relationships or act as saprotrophs. Yellow morels (Morchella esculenta) are more commonly found under deciduous trees rather than conifers, and black morels (Morchella elata) can be found in deciduous forests, oak and poplar. Deciduous trees commonly associated with morels in the northern hemisphere include ash, sycamore, tulip tree, dead and dying elms, cottonwoods and old apple trees (remnants of orchards). The fruiting of yellow morels in Missouri, USA, was found to correlate with warm weather, precipitation, and tree species, and most usually in the springtime. In the UK, they appear during May and June. Morels are rarely found in the vicinity of most common poisonous mushrooms such as the sulphur tuft and fly agaric (April–May time frame), but can occur alongside "false morels" (Gyromitra sp.) and "elfin saddles" (Verpa sp.)
All types of morels may grow abundantly in forests which have been burned by a forest fire, with black morels at the start of the season, followed by the yellows, greys and greens. The mechanism for this behavior is not well known, but appears to be related to both the death of trees and the removal of organic material on the forest floor. Moderate-intensity fires are reported to produce higher abundances of morels than low or high intensities. Where fire suppression is practiced morels often grow in small amounts in the same spot year after year. If these areas are overrun by wildfire they often produce a bumper crop of black morels the following spring. Commercial pickers and buyers in North America target recently burned areas for this reason. The Finnish name, huhtasieni, refers to huhta, area cleared for agriculture by the slash and burn method. These spots may be jealously guarded by mushroom pickers, as the mushrooms are a delicacy and sometimes a cash crop.
Efforts to grow morels are rarely successful and the commercial morel industry is based on harvest of wild mushrooms.
When gathering morels, care must be taken to distinguish them from the poisonous false morels, including Gyromitra esculenta, Verpa bohemica, and others. Although the false morels are sometimes eaten without ill effect, they can cause severe gastrointestinal upset and loss of muscular coordination (including cardiac muscle) if eaten in large quantities or over several days in a row. They contain a gyromitrin-like toxin (an organic, carcinogenic poison) that is produced by the mushroom.
The key differentiating features of false morels in comparison to morels include:
Morels are a feature of many cuisines, including Provençal. Their unique flavor is prized by cooks worldwide, with recipes and preparation methods designed to highlight and preserve it. As with most edible fungi, they are best when collected or bought fresh. They must be cooked before eating. Morels occasionally contain insect larvae that drop out during the drying process.
One of the best and simplest ways to enjoy morels is by gently sauteeing them in butter, cracking pepper on top and sprinkling with salt. Others soak the mushrooms in an egg batter and lightly bread them with saltine crackers or flour before frying them. Lastly, morel mushrooms go great with meat or in a soup.
Morels are not improved by extensive washing or soaking, as it may ruin the delicate flavor and require long cooking times. Due to their natural porosity, morels may contain trace amounts of soil which cannot be washed out. They can best be 'flash frozen' by simply running under cold water or putting them in a bucket to soak for a few minutes, then placing on a cookie sheet or pizza pan and placing into a freezer. After freezing they keep very fresh with the frozen glaze for a long time in airtight plastic containers. However, when thawed they can sometimes turn slightly mushy in the cap. Any visible soil should be removed with a brush, after cutting the body in half lengthwise if needed.
Drying is a popular and effective method of long-term storage for morels, and they are readily available commercially in this form; dried morels can be reconstituted by soaking in warm water or milk. They may also be frozen after steaming or frying. Canning is not recommended because the necessary high pressure and temperature destroys much of the nutty flavor.
Morels contain small amounts of hydrazine toxins that are removed by thorough cooking; morel mushrooms should never be eaten raw. It has been reported that even cooked morels can sometimes cause mild intoxication symptoms when consumed with alcohol.
When eating this mushroom for the first time it is wise to consume a small amount to minimize any allergic reaction. Morels for consumption must be clean and free of decay.
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