If, in late April or early May, you spotted someone on his hands and knees crawling through an abandoned apple orchard, that someone may have been John Kupec, an amateur mycologist in search of the elusive gourmet delicacy, the morel mushroom.
The Summit Hill native patiently waits for the two-week period when the morel can be harvested. Earlier, they are hidden below the forest's leaf litter-later, they begin to spore and rot.
The morel mushroom is highly sought after because of a unique taste in the category of truffles and caviar. It has been described as exploding with a complex flavor with notes that are sweet, earthy, woodsy, nutty, rich and brie-like. To a mycophile, a person who loves mushrooms, this diamond of mushrooms is your best friend.
It is also one of the most readily-recognized of all the edible mushrooms. Each fruit body begins as a tightly compressed, grayish sponge with lighter ridges, and expands to form a large yellowish sponge with large pits and ridges raised on a large white stem.
Kupec foraged two batches of morels this spring, a total of 130 mushrooms. They ranged from an inch to a foot in height-generally about three inches high, and about three inches in diameter.
The first step to finding morels is knowing when to look for them.
"They are a harbinger of spring," Kupec explained. "I look for them when the soil starts to warm, when the asparagus is growing and the apple trees start blooming."
The best place to forage for morels in abandoned apple orchards, preferably ones that had been limed or are in limestone-rich areas so that the soil has a neutral pH. A word of caution is to avoid old apple orchards that have residuals of lead arsenate pesticides.
The morels are low to the ground and are difficult to spot, especially on sunny days.
"An overcast day is better," Kupec advised. "If there is strong sunlight, they look like a shadow."
Because they are small, close to the ground, and a black, yellow or a grey fleshy tone that blends with the forest floor, once Kupec enters the abandoned apple orchard, and is within what was once the tree's canopy shadow, he gets on his hands and knees and begins his search. Morel foraging is not for everyone.
"Poison ivy and ticks are everywhere," he said. "It comes with the territory."
Kupec credits his love of mushrooms to his Slovak heritage.
"On Christmas Eve we always had mushroom soup," he said. "In Europe, mushroom dishes are popular. The Eastern European countries all have mushroom soup.
"My grandparents came from Czechoslovakia, and my uncle showed me how to look for wild mushrooms," he noted. "That is where I started my interest in mushrooms. I started looking for pinkies and ram's heads."
"That wasn't enough," he continued. "I wanted to know more."
Kupec began studying with mycologist Joe Lankalis, three times taking his six-week course.
"The first time, it seemed that he was talking in Latin," he said. "I was totally confused. The second time, I started to grasp some of the Latin. The third time it started to fall into place. He now considers me his best student."
Is there a risk in eating wild morel mushrooms?
Kupec feels that the sponge-like morels are so distinctive that they are hard to confuse with any other mushroom.
"It is unmistakable if you are knowledgeable," he said.
But, to make sure, he advises people, before foraging or eating wild mushrooms, to read as much as they can, and, take a field trip or class with a mycologist.
He also notes, that unlike the cultivated mushrooms sold in stores, all wild mushrooms must be cooked before eating. Lastly, some people may be allergic to wild mushrooms.
The foraged morels may be cooked fresh or dried and stored. Once dried, they can be rehydrated in boiling water, and the water can be reserved for stock. Morel mushrooms can be used in many recipes including soups and sauces, and are popular battered and fried.