In a new series, Luke Mackay explores the virtues of wild mushrooms. This time, mushrooms that shoot spores
We have already looked at mushrooms that disperse their spores with gills (shiitake, for example) and those that use pores (penny buns, for example). This time we are looking at the action heroes of the fungal world, the spore-shooters.
Ascomycetes (yep, we’re going to stick with ‘spore-shooters’ I think) form spores inside sacks just below the surface and expel them into the atmosphere when they are ripe. If you watch very closely, the spores look like a cloud of mist emanating from the mushroom.
Mushrooms are endlessly fascinating from a botanical and scientific point of view but in this series, I have of course focused on my favourite eating mushrooms: if I were forced to name the three mushrooms I love to cook with and eat most, I would definitely say the two that I have written about thus far. The third is my number one: the spore-shooter that takes the crown as the most delicious mushroom has to be the morel.
Morels vary tremendously in appearance, ranging in colour from pale golden to dark grey; in shape from long and thin, to thick and bulbous; and in size from finger nail to fist. All have a dense, honeycombed structure that is endlessly appealing and detailed. Inside they are hollow, whiteish and dimpled with a white stalk emanating from the cap.
There is a certain mystery and mythology attached to morels, much like with truffles. My theory on why this might be is twofold: first, they are utterly delicious, with earthy, mulchy notes, deep savoury complexity and real nutty bite. They are a perfect foil for various meats and some fish, as they don’t overpower but subtly add flavour—though they can more than hold their own as the star of a dish. A vegetarian that hates mushrooms has nothing but my utmost sympathy.
The texture, too, is like nothing else: fried in butter, they almost crisp up on the outside, while remaining soft but not slimy on the inside. A fresh punnet of morels delivered to the kitchen is the chef’s ultimate dream.
Elm or apple trees
Second, they are resolutely impossible to cultivate. They are not farmed because of the complex, symbiotic relationship that the morel mycelium has with the open scrub or woodland upon which it grows (ideally chalky soil and usually in the presence of ash, elm or apple trees) which is incredibly difficult to replicate in a controlled or artificial environment.
These two reasons point to the other obvious thing about morels: the phenomenal cost. They are not by any standards cheap, but does this make them bad value? Not for me—I will happily pay for a product that has been picked by hand, by a passionate, knowledgeable expert, who might have hiked miles for the pleasure and who gets it to market in prime condition. That they taste delicious makes these beautiful spore-shooters a relative bargain, wherever you find them.