FUNGI are indelibly associated with harvest time; that period of the year when summer is drawing to a close and the leaves are starting to turn russet.
It’s the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” extolled by John Keats in his celebratory poem on the cycle of life, Ode To Autumn.
Picking dew-covered mushrooms on a hazy, mild September morning is one of life’s pleasures.
Which begs the question why Cragside’s head gardener Alison Pringle and wild food expert Rob Caton are scouring the leaf-strewn floor of a mixed wood grove for signs of fungi this late March morning.
Or to be precise, one particular type of fungus.
Granted, it’s an unseasonably warm March morning, the sun bathing Cragside and the countryside around Rothbury in Northumberland, in a honey-coloured glow.
What sort of fungus would dare to make its presence felt at this time of year? One that any chef worth their salt would pay handsomely to have on their menu: the unpromising looking morel.
Why unpromising? Because it resembles a shrivelled brain atop an off-white stalk. Yet this globular fungus with its deeply pitted crown that only grows to between one and two inches in height, is one of the most prized restaurant ingredients.
The morel only appears for a few days each spring between March and May, favouring mixed woodland clearings, old orchards and pastures.
Usually sold dried, they are fearsomely expensive – you can expect to pay around £25 for a 100g bag. For mushroom lovers, though, their rich, creamy flavour and scarcity puts them in the top spot.
But while dried morels have their uses, fresh is always best. And free is even better.
Rob Caton, who runs outdoor adventure provider Wild Harmony, personally believes they are overrated. “I would much rather eat a puffball fried gently in butter,” he says as he scans the woodland floor for any signs of morels.
“Oh no, they’re really bland,” retorts Alison. “I’ve never had a morel, however, so I’m looking forward to trying my first one, if we find any.”
The pair have been hunting for 30 minutes, but as Alison states, there are worse things to be doing on a sunny spring morning.
And there have been a few interruptions for wildlife spotting here on the upper reaches of the Cragside estate – buzzards wheeling on the thermals and the rare sight of a pipistrelle bat feeding on the wing mid-morning.
As they search, Rob chats about the advantages of foraging – free food, seasonality, the organic credentials – but also has a word of warning. “If in doubt, leave out,” he says.
Never were truer words spoken when it comes to fungi. Horse Whisperer author Nicholas Evans famously fell seriously ill after eating poisonous mushrooms while on holiday in the Highlands.
Rob believes people should not be encouraged to hunt for fungi unless they have been taught what’s safe and what’s not – he recommends booking lessons with an expert. But he is more relaxed about the morel because of its distinctive appearance and the lack of fungi competition so early in the year.
Nevertheless, he warns to be on the alert for the Gymomitra esculenta or false morel. It too has brain-like lobes and is highly poisonous, but unlike edible morels which prefer broad-leaved trees as neighbours, the phony strain is found under pines on sandy soils and is only really common in the central Highlands.
Rob is about to call it a day on the morel mission when Alison gives a whoop of joy . Under a beech tree in a clearing are two morels, their light brown honeycomb caps almost blending in with the dry leaves.
“Well, we won’t get fat on these two,” Rob quips, “but let’s get cooking.”
Other people never go anywhere without mobile phones. Rob, in true backwoodsman-style, invariably has a portable camping stove to hand.
While Alison is given the task of finding some tender, new dandelion leaves, Rob sets about preparing the morels in a clearing by a fallen silver birch tree.
These are fungi you want to ensure you clean and wash well before eating – and never consume raw as they contain haemolytic toxins which can cause severe digestive upsets, and which are only destroyed when cooked.
“The shape of the cap means they tend to accumulate insects and maggots in their cavities,” Rob explains. “They need a good wash or dusting off with a paintbrush before you eat them.”
“You’re really selling these Rob,” Alison interjects as she passes him a healthy handful of dandelion leaves.
Rob doesn’t believe in over-complicating food. He pops a little butter into the pan, adds the finely chopped morels, a pinch of salt and pepper and then drops the dandelion leaves in for the final seconds of cooking.
“Magic,” he says as he hands Alison a bowl of glistening morels.
Tentatively she puts a spoonful into her mouth. A moment’s hesitation is followed by a look of pleasant surprise. “Who would have thought such an ugly mushroom could taste so amazing.
“It’s really earthy and meaty and the slightly bitter taste of the dandelion is a perfect foil. Would I eat a morel again? Not if it takes nearly an hour to find two! No wonder the dried ones cost so much.”
The good news is that the morel is coming into its own in April and future hunter/gatherer expeditions shouldn’t be so cruelly tantalising.
So save yourself some money by getting out and about in the country foraging and turn your own meals into gourmet feasts.
Rob Caton of Wild Harmony has a number of bushcraft events organised for April. April 3: Mother’s Day Camp Craft Special, £40 per adult, £5 per child. April 19, Wild Family Camp Craft Skills Day, £45 per adult, £15 per child. April 22-24: Wild Family Camp Craft Skills Weekend, £150 per adult, £50 per child. Visit www.wildharmony.co.uk
For information on the National Trust visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland, NE65 7PX, 01669 620333. House open Tuesday to Sunday 1pm-5pm until April 15 and 11am-5pm from April 16-May 1. Grounds open Tuesday to Sunday 10.30am-5pm until October 30.
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