Most wild mushrooms emerge in autumn - but morels pop up every spring.
They are a remarkable ingredient, with a distinctive appearance and flavour.
Unlike other wild mushrooms, the body of the fungi is hollow and they have a rounded tip, not cap, which resembles honeycomb.
"It's one of those seasonal treats," says chef Steve Groves from top restaurant Roux at Parliament Square. "The fact you can't get them all year round makes them special. They have a really deep, meaty, almost nutty flavour. The texture is really nice as well."
- Morels have different subtle variations as a species and Latin names including Morchella vulgaris, Morchella esculenta and Morchella elata. Colours vary from black to brown to yellow to almost white.
- They are foraged in forests across the world - especially Turkey, the USA, Canada, Tibet and Western Europe (especially France and Spain).
- The season for Turkish morels starts around March and ends around early June, when night temperatures have risen. Supplies then switch to the USA and Canada until early summer.
- You can buy morels fresh, dried or frozen.
- The other classic wild mushroom in spring is the mousseron (pictured below left), also known as St George.
Growing and harvesting
Morels are a mycorrhizal fungi, which means that they grow in symbiosis with tree roots. In the wild, they often emerge in clusters. To supply the market, professional foragers in countries such as Turkey bring their finds back a central packhouse where they are graded then exported by airfreight. Here is the blog of a morel forager here in the UK.
In the Market
The two main wholesalers of wild mushrooms in the Market are Mushroom Man and Bruce White. The former sells more wild species; the latter sells larger volumes of cultivated mushrooms under his brand Bulldog Mushrooms. Both offer class 1 morels in various sizes.
Michael Hyams from Mushroom Man, pictured below with frozen morels, explains that his chef customers want wild morels, not cultivated morels from China.
Visually, the difference between the two is quite subtle: "Where it stands out for me is the stalk [on cultivated morels]. It's very white. They tend not to cut it down." Cultivated morels also tend to be more uniform in size.
Bruce White agrees: "We try to avoid the Chinese as they have no flavour at all. We get ours direct airfeight from Turkey - it's a totally different ball game." Here is a picture of his stuffed warehouse.
These are dried wild mushrooms sold at Mushroom Man.
At time of writing, The French Garden were also selling kilo boxes of Turkish morels.
Morels should not be eaten raw and are best cleaned before use. Some chefs quickly rinse whole morels then dry.
Alternatively, tap first to dislodge any bugs or forest debris and wipe with a cloth or pastry brush. Once prepped, store under a damp cloth rather than clingfilm. Dried mushrooms will need rehydrating before use.
At time of writing, here's a sample of morel dishes in London restaurants:
- Morel mushroom and pea dumplings with a spiced creamy sauce at Tamarind Kitchen.
- Chargrilled veal chop, morels, Tropea onion and parmesan; or pan-fried gnocchi, morels, ceps and wild garlic at The Ninth.
- Soft boiled duck egg with asparagus, morels and mushroom toast at Cabotte.
- Cavatappi, fava beans, sugar snaps, morels and Grana Padano at Riding House Cafe.
- Morels, white turmeric, crisps at Kutir.
- Wild garlic and parsley velouté with new season’s morels and mushroom croustades at Elystan.
Morels can be cooked whole or in slices. They tend to be paired with butter and cream.
Chef Steve Groves often sautes morels in butter, with shallot and garlic, then sometimes finishes them with meat juices or mushroom or chicken stock. "They are quite a dry mushroom so lend themselves to moisture in the cooking process. I don't want them to be crisp. I moisten at the end and almost emulsify with butter to make a sauce."
Below is one of his dishes: asparagus with morels and Spenwood cheese. Sometimes, he stuffs them with a chicken mousse subtly flavoured with wild garlic.
Here's asparagus with duck egg, morels and nettle sauce from chef Merlin Labron-Johnson.
George Rouse, owner of London catering company George's Kitchen, uses the Market for his supplies, too. "With morels, freshness is key: you don't want to over cook or oven heat as you will lose the best of the flavour," he says.
"New Covent Garden Market is London's food hub. It is key to the success of most restaurants in the London area. Our veg supplier is based there and they fulfil our orders within 6-8 hours from point of order."