Shenandoah Living Magazine: Hunting Morels with Chef Tarver King

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From Shenandoah Living Magazine by Lani Furbank:

“You found it before me, good job!”

These were not the words I expected to hear on my very first foraging trip. Tromping through the woods at 7 in the morning, I nearly stepped on a morel mushroom poking out from a pile of leaves.

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Chef Tarver King carefully bent down to harvest the morel with a pocketknife, blew on the inside to release the spores, and placed the mushroom in a plastic grocery bag hanging from the belt loop of his pants.

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King has been foraging for about ten years, and just recently, he’s started to see a greater acceptance of foraged foods on restaurant menus.

“We used to go looking for wild stuff all the time, and it was never for the restaurant, it was just to bring home and eat,” he said. “A lot of people probably wouldn’t order it.”

He attributes this shift in demand to the fact that restaurants tend to follow the industry leader. In this case, when Noma (the Copenhagen restaurant that consistently ranks as one of the top in the world) began experimenting with wild ingredients, they spurred an international interest in finding instead of growing.

King is thrilled that people are starting to embrace it. “There are flavors that grow wild that are incredible,” he said. “Everyone knows what garlic tastes like, not everybody knows what a ramp tastes like.”

His enthusiasm is evident in the food philosophy he’s developed for The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville, where he’s worked for three years. The restaurant has three menus: Grown, Raised and Found. “They are the three places all food comes from,” he explained. “We do it not because it’s the thing to do, but because it’s a necessary source of ingredients.”

The restaurant and farm owner, Beverly Morton Billand, supports King’s wild side. “I thought it was the most innovative thing that could happen,” she said. “That’s the way our ancestors used to eat.”

Morton Billand sees foraging as a natural extension of the farm-to-table movement: the earth-to-table movement, adding, “it shows people that we can respect the earth.”

On this particular foraging trip, King and I had our eye on the prize: the mighty morel. Morels are the darlings of the foraging world.

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Mitch Fournet of the Mycological Association of Washington said, “There are a lot of people that may not hunt a lot of other mushrooms, but the morels draw people out.”

Even with their elevated status for chefs and casual foragers, morels are still a bit of a mystery. Many mushrooms have known mycorrhizal associations, which Fournet describes as a friendship between the mushrooms and the trees. “The mushrooms grow around the tips of the roots and they have a much thinner structure that is able to reach into the earth and spread out and create a whole lot more surface area that’s able to absorb water and micronutrients and share that with the trees. And then the trees, they photosynthesize, so they create excess sugar and they’re able to share that with the mushrooms,” he explained.

Morels are often found around elm trees, especially those that are dead or dying, but not always. This leads many to believe that morels might have a non-obligate mycorrhizal relationship, meaning that they can grow in tandem with elms, but it’s not a requirement.

This relationship makes morels very difficult to grow commercially, as does the presence of sclerotia. A sclerotium is a mass of hardened mycelium (the underground branchlike structure of a fungus) that stores nutrients to allow the mushroom to survive when the weather conditions are poor. The temperature and moisture levels at the start of morel season must be just right to cause the sclerotia to produce a mushroom, and these conditions are difficult to replicate.

This kind of scientific knowledge isn’t required for a successful foraging trip, but it can help. Many foragers, including King, know to look for morels near elm, ash and tulip poplar trees, and they know that the elevation of the location will affect how soon the morels begin to appear. Fournet cites Shenandoah National Park as one of the best places for morel hunting forays because of its ideal conditions.

When we spotted the first mushroom on our trip, King explained, “usually when you find one there’s probably more in the area.” That’s because the mycelium extends great distances underground.

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If you think of a fungus like a fruit tree, it all makes more sense. “You’ve got this mycelium,” Fournet said. “That’s actually the organism itself, and so you can think of that as the tree. And then, when the mushroom forms, that’s the apple on the tree.”

Of course, it’s also crucial to know how to identify what you’re looking for. A mushroom field guide is a great resource, but according to Fournet, the best way to learn is by tagging along on a trip with someone who knows what they’re doing.

That was my plan with King. When I asked how to distinguish between poisonous and edible mushrooms, he told me, “There is one that’s called a false morel…It’s kind of more round, whereas this one is kind of a cone shape, so it’s pretty obvious.”

Fournet added, “When you cut a morel in half, it’s pure hollow…Verpas, if you cut them in half, they tend to have a cottony filling.”

Mushroom hunting can be life threatening for the inexperienced, but that doesn’t stop people from getting out in the woods in mid-April to early May to look for morels.

While we were wandering, we ran into a pair of fellow foragers. “Get some big ones?” the man called to us. We showed him our loot. “We were here Saturday,” the man continued, “and she got a 9-incher…That was the biggest one we seen for a couple years.”

King later explained that the larger morels tend not to be as flavorful for cooking. As a general rule, all mushrooms should be cooked before eating, but this is particularly true in the case of morels. Fournet said, “There are certain compounds that can break down and be denatured from cooking and some of those compounds, like the ones in morels, if you don’t cook them, they can upset your stomach.”

King has prepared morels in countless different ways, including stuffed with egg yolks, butter and garlic and then breaded and fried, or, served with crispy black bass, pickled ramps and basmati rice.

His favorite preparation? “I like them straight up, to be honest,” he said. He called his simple method with butter, garlic and shallots “foolproof.” (Really, it is. I tried it.)

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Serving wild mushrooms in a restaurant must be done with extreme care. Morton Billand and her team forage on their own property and buy from other foragers, and she fully understands the necessity for discretion. “I think we have to be very conscientious about what we’re doing, and I trust Tarver and I trust the people that he’s working with,” she said. Tarver added that their foraging sources hold degrees in mycology.

As far as the menu goes, morels are always a hit. When asked about her favorite morel dish, Morton Billand couldn’t come up with one. “Whatever Tarver makes is fantastic.”

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