Foraging: Australian Morels – Morchella australiana

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Morel mushrooms are not something I was expecting to find often in the Australian bush. Infact, we’d only heard rumours about them existing at all. Until we came across Morchella australiana.

When I think of Morels (Morchella species), I think of the Pacific North-West of North America, with it’s lush deciduous early-spring forests and salmon berries and dogwood and woodpeckers and bears. Or a Spanish rocky hillside.

I don’t think of the Australian bush, with it’s eucalypt trees and rocky high places. Not until now, anyway.

As it turns out, not only do Australian morels definitely exist, but it’s possible to find and forage a whole basket-full in a morning.

Which is a bit like mushroom christmas.

It’s thought that there are three main types of Australian Morel. All of them are native – unlike the more common pine forest edible mushrooms – slippery jacks and saffron milk caps, which were introduced to this continent along with their host plant the pine tree in the 1800’s.

The morels, on the other hand, have always been here.

And no doubt were enjoyed by Australians for thousands of years, before the white invaders came along, at which point much of the Australian knowledge of mushrooms (and food crops in general) was lost, although here is reference to a few recorded edible mushroom species, and I’m sure there’s much more out there if you know who to ask.

But slowly, small pieces of the knowledge is coming back.

Morchella australiana

The morels we went hunting for are Morchella australiana – an Australian black morel species only formally identified in 2014. These pop up in a wet spring, in inland NSW and Victoria, from the Pilliga Scrub in NSW down to Horsham in VIC.

They are not specifically associated with recent fire country, unlike some other morels. Here is a paper on Morchella australiana which goes into great detail about the species.

In Australia there is also Morchella rufobrunnea, which is found predominantly in Western Australia (aside from other places in the world), but which apparently can also crop up in South Australia and VIC on occasion, according to Jonathan at Selby Mushrooms.

There’s also the famed post-fire morel – the one we’d heard rumours about – that pops up mysteriously in eucalypt forests a year or so after a big fire, in the Springtime. I’ve even heard tales of this kind growing up out of cold ashes in unused fireplaces occasionally. How cool is that. I haven’t been able to find it named as a species, though. It’s considered very similar to one of the European morels, Morchella elata.

Non-edible lookalikes: the only one that looks vaguely similar is Gyromitra species – check out the differences, including the fact that morel stems are hollow. Also, possibly, some of the stinkhorns, but there’s no close similarities.

Where to find them…

Now mushroom hunters are notoriously secretive beings – a bit like folks who fish. They may tell you what kinds of places to look for to find certain species, but they sure as hell won’t tell you their favourite secret spots.

As an indication, though – what we had heard was that many older folks had been going morel hunting for years around Melville Caves in Victoria – a country defined by not-great soil fertility, and big granite boulders.

The ones we found were in a similar ecosystem – country Victoria, big granite boulders, dappled shade, and early spring.

Early spring is apparently key. As is a wet Spring (and perhaps winter, beforehand?).

Morchella Australiana are apparently found along edges where fertile meets infertile ground, just on the infertile side. In europe morels are famous for popping up in gravel or woodchip garden pathways for this same reason.

Because they’re a native species, removing morels from a state park is technically illegal – but of course if you know someone (or show up with a basket of goodies and make a new friend) with likely and privately owned land, you’re off and away.

Responsible foraging

We left the very little ones, to grow and sporulate (or to be found by other delighted foragers), and took the larger ones.

Cutting morels off at their base and leaving the butt in the ground is thought to help ensure better growth for the wider mycelium – and this goes for any mushroom species.

Of course cutting morels off at their base also ensures you end up with less dirt in your basket, which is a very good thing with these crinkly little numbers.

We did pull some out whole, though, because we wanted to see if we could get them growing at home (of course!) – and having the soil-clad stem butt means you also end up with some of the surrounding soil biology, which can only be a good thing when trying to cultivate this species.

Spreading the love – when mushroom hunting, its good practice to use either a net bag or a basket to gather in. Why? Because this means that you’ll spread spores like fairy dust wherever you walk, with your basket / bag of mushrooms. And we all want more mushrooms, don’t we.

Preparing + eating

Once we got our haul of morels home, it was time to prepare them for ultimate deliciousness.

Wash – take a big bowl of water wand wash each morel to remove the inevitable dirt and bits that will be in its crinkles.

Save – save that water! It’s laden with spores now. You can make a spore slurry with it.

Select – if you’re not planning to eat all your morels straight up (a hard choice to make), then choose the youngest ones for drying. These are the ones that are the firmest – you may find some are floppier than others. The slightly floppier ones are just as tasty fresh, but will not dry as well.

Dry – you can dry morels in a range of ways, but I rekon a dehydrator is best, as they don’t do well with long, slow drying. Traditionally they were threaded and hung in the window to dry over a number of days. How you dry them is up to you, but we used our excalibur dryer at 35ºc to dry our morels in about 6 hours.

Morels reportedly re-hydrate and cook very well, so we’re looking forward to trying these dried ones later. For now, they’re safely in a jar in our pantry.

Eat – oh my goodness. They are so good. There’s lots of things you can do with morels, and since they’re hollow, stuffing them with something tasty is a major option for double-deliciousness.

But seriously, we have never been able to go past them (or any other mushroom, really) sautéed in butter, garlic and herbs, deglazed with some type of whitish wine, simmered in cream (or just more butter) and ladled over great quality pasta. Please excuse me while I go faint at the mere memory of this meal.

Making a spore slurry

Spore slurries are a bit of a wildcard method of inoculating ground with new mushroom mycelium. It very much depends on the slurry, the ground and a myriad of other environmental conditions as to whether they work in a certain place.

But hey, if you’ve got spare morel wash water and a few morels – why not try? it doesn’t take long to do, and may result in amazing awesomeness next spring. Or the spring after that, maybe…

Paul Stamets is credited with popularising the spore slurry technique, but he notes that he got the idea from a Chinese method of mushroom cultivation.

We made our spore slurry from the morel’s wash water, a few morels with intact stem butts, and some newspaper that the morels had dried on (which would contains spores). We blended it all up, and poured it out.

Typically, molasses is also added to give the mycelium something to eat, as well as a bit of salt. Some folks ferment their slurries, or aerate them, to hopefully increase the correct biology.

But if you’d don’t have time for that, no worries. A simple slurry is much better than no slurry at all!

We poured the spore slurry out around the edge of our driveway, where the fertility of the garden meets the infertility of the gravel. Here’s hoping. We’ll report back next Spring, and maybe the nest spring after that.

Here’s a whacky video by The Urban Farming Guys on growing morel mushrooms at home with spore slurries. They seem to be doing a pretty good job, unless they happen to live in a previously infested morel paddock anyways. Good fun.

Morel Resources

Overseas resources:

Once more, a big thanks to Speedy our good friend and foraging expert, without whom we would never have found any morels, and would be very sad.

We run downright excellent Gourmet Mushroom Cultivation courses in NSW + VIC for anyone who wants to get growing. Just by the way.
gourmet mushroom cultivation GMC

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