Had an informative and enjoyable visit with Bagot, Manitoba-area resident Ed Brecknell in mid-May of this year where I learned about distinctive and edible morel mushroom (Morchella elata) and edible oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus).
Both are wild fungi without chlorophyll and grow randomly on his farm property. There are also oyster mushroom lookalikes and poisonous oyster mushrooms. It takes a trained eye to recognize the differences. Right off the bat — this important word of caution. Never eat any wild fungi that have not been properly identified by a qualified person or professional. Inexperienced persons should never gather them for food as some are deadly when ingested. Take for example the amanita mushroom, sometimes called the “destroying angel.” It can cause death in less than six hours and as far as is known, there is no antidote. Wild mushrooms are such a distinct and unique part of nature. As a result, today’s column is devoted to that subject and even then I’m only skimming the surface. Before I dig deeper, here’s a tip of my hat and a great big Prairie welcome to all Grainews readers wherever you be across this vast land.
Taught by his dad
Ed Brecknell is well informed about both non-poisonous and poisonous types of fungi and attributes his knowledge of the subject to his dad who was from Pelly, in southeastern Saskatchewan. Ed explained it this way. “Dad told me of how his father would go for a walk and bring back a pailful of mushrooms of different types. Later, my dad started picking them now and then. It’s just in the last few years that I began picking them in my own area.”
Ed continued, “This is probably the best I’ve ever seen for morels. They’re growing along cow paths and in dark, shaded and wooded areas where there’s lots of soft humus-like soil that’s moist but not wet. They’re a dark-charcoal colour when popping up through the grass and just about everywhere the middle of May. The season lasts only a few weeks. Morels usually come one at a time. However, when I’d poke around here and there, sometimes I’d find three and four in a cluster. This has been a really good year for them.”
Ed provided me with a brief resumé attributed to his dad. “My father Dale Brecknell would have made a nice story. He passed away three years ago at 91. He went from riding horses on the farm during the Depression to riding a motorcycle on the front line as part of the Italian invasion during the Second World War. Then, he became a foreman on complicated construction jobs with only a Grade 10 education as well as farming from 1962 ’til the early 2000s at Bagot. I was smart enough to get his life history told to me on camera from about 1927 until the 1970s.”
Preparation and serving morels
Here’s Ed’s method. “There’s usually some dirt at the bottom part after I break or cut off the top section. The morel root system is left undisturbed. I rinse the morel real quick to get rid of any sand, or brush off any dirt or whatever with a pastry brush, then shake or pat dry to get rid of any moisture, then slice it in half. Morels are hollow. My method is put some butter in a pan and fry them up. They become very soft. You can eat them that way, or, you can cook ’em a little longer to get rid of more moisture and they become a little firmer. I also freeze prepared morels in sandwich bags and have those for future eating. Morels are an acquired taste — more earthy. This year I think I’ll dehydrate some in the dryer and use them for soups and stews. I have no fear of morels and know exactly what they are.”
Ed told me a lot of people are reluctant to eat morels and have said if he eats them first, they’ll try some, but most people still don’t. “They’re afraid of them which is good,” and Ed’s OK with that and points out, “once a person learns about morels, what they are, how to pick and identify them, they then become more comfortable with morels. I see other wild mushrooms but won’t eat any unless I absolutely know for certain they’re edible.”
Ed tells me these don’t grow on the ground and usually appear a few weeks after morels. “They generally grow mostly on the north side of dead tree wood, sometimes waist or shoulder high. I once harvested an oyster mushroom that was about 12 feet up, knocked it off with a stick and caught it as it fell. Oyster mushrooms can also grow on a log that’s lying on the ground or on some decaying bark.” According to Ed, “I’ve seen some oyster mushrooms the size of a man’s fist or half the size of a hubcap. I just get a knife or whatever and slice it away from the tree.” Ed retrieved several of them last year and says, “They can be quite heavy. They’re kind of rare. An oyster mushroom is whiter when it first comes out and darkens as it ages. In my case, I own all the land on which I’m picking mushrooms. I know where to find them and what they look like and those that are edible.”
I, Ted, extend my thanks to Ed Brecknell for the visit and in-depth introduction to wild mushrooms growing at his premises. Later he sent me an email. “When it comes to foraging for oyster mushrooms and morels, one never knows how the harvest will be from one year to the other. I have been doing house maintenance, and there is always something to do at the farmland I own, like fencing etc. I try to do a two-mile walk every day in the woods. This year the tent caterpillars are very bad; most trees are completely stripped. Glad to hear you are keeping up the guitar and singing.”