I read too many travel memoir books. And too many food ones And recently, I’ve discovered a whole niche of memoirs that are travel and food. A bold statement, no? Let me explain.
I say this because even before I realized that mushrooms were quite possibly the most delicious things that I have been neglecting almost my entire life and had made it my new mission in life to make up for all the ones I have missed over the years, I wanted to go mushroom hunting thanks to some vivid passages in several books I’ve read. I wouldn’t eat them; I’d only hunt them. How’s that for the power of written word? Come forward a few years where I can’t get enough of mushrooms and the desire to go hunting them became all consuming.
One—Where did one find them? Two—Which ones are the correct ones?
The answer to both of these questions can be confidently placed in the hands of a knowledgeable guide. According to everything I read, finding a willing teacher isn’t always easy because these crafty people like to hide their top mushroom hunting spots and I was determined that I only wanted a guide that wanted to protect his secrets. I’m sure that mushrooms found in secret locations taste better. Absolutely sure.
Morels are a type of mushroom that are prized in the culinary world that I have seen on very few menus. Their price is high which can turn some of the more adventuresome cooks back to crimini mushrooms. I had not tasted them nor cooked with them so you can imagine my delight when I was invited to the Inn at Cedar Falls for Morels in May with several other writers. An opportunity to taste a mushroom I have not had before AND a chance to go on my very first mushroom hunt was ……
Terry Lingo, an innkeeper at the Inn, was our guide and we were taken to a hidden spot and briefed on where the morels tended to be found. (Don’t worry, his credentials are solid--Terry only took us to a common hunting ground; he declined to show us his most secret locations that he has never revealed to another living soul.) Our group fanned out , crunching carefully through the undergrowth with bowed heads. It took a bit of time but someone spotted something.
It was the remainder of a morel. Someone had beaten us to the prize! We began our search again, shoulders now following the bowed heads as we peered unblinkingly at the ground. Looking for something you have only seen pictures of is no easy task. I hadn’t any sense of scale as to what I was looking for and even the broken neck of the first find didn’t prepare me for the sheer size of a morel when Terry found the first one.
It was large and yellow and didn’t look particularly appetizing. I remembered reading how true morels are hollow and it was turned over to examine the inside. Hollow. The interior texture reminded me of a tongue and even felt like a very dry one.
The hunt progressed with several more morels being found. Some were just right and others were past their prime and we did not pick them. Terry told us that if his children picked one that was too mature by accident he had them crumble it and drop it to the forest floor in hopes that more would come from it another time. Eventually, even the most diligent of us had to admit that there were no more to be found in the area and we returned to the Inn to await Chef Anthony’s dinner featuring fresh morels.
This morel was past its prime--notice it's darkening of its ridges and less plump appearance
This morel was just right. Note how large it is! How DO these things hide so well?
Two dishes at dinner featured the morels. The appetizer was Pan Roasted Diver Scallop with Morels, Pancetta & Sweet Pea Ragout. The flavors combined beautifully; the scallop was lightly browned on its edges and delicately sweet and tender. The morels had a nutty quality to them that was enhanced by the salty bite of the pancetta. Sweet Peas scattered among the morels and pancetta reminded the palate that Spring was here in all her green glory.
For the main course, a grilled new york strip steak in a red wine and morel reduction brought a bold earthiness to the meal reminiscent of the ingredients and where they came from. From field, from vine and deep musky earth each flavor rang true and then melded in one blissful mouthful. I closed my eyes for a moment and finally understood that the only time ‘Well done’ should be used in regards to a steak is to compliment how delicious it was cooked. I choose medium which was seared on the outside and completely reddish pink on the inside but I couldn’t help wonder if my seatmate’s medium rare was even better.
The meal stretched on lazily as a good meal should until coffee and desserts were brought out. I strolled slowly to my room at the end of the evening and slipped between the sheets, comfortably full with so many good things that I fell asleep as soon as my head sank into the soft pillows. Morning came as mornings do and I rose quickly and took a long hot shower before turning out for breakfast.
Breakfast was prepared for us; a cassoulet of eggs and cheese with morels. Sweet orange muffin and applewood smoked bacon were compliments. The hearty cassoulet was subtle in its flavor and nudged one gently awake more effectively than the coffee. All along the table each person seemed to take a slow, sleepy first bite but then heads lifted and forks eagerly went for more. Conversations stirred and we discussed our morning’s plans.
It seemed after such a breakfast, most of us were invigorated to hike and explore Hocking Hills!