It began with a filet mignon de veau aux moreilles. My introduction to this ugly but delicious fungus in a restaurant in Geneva, almost 40 years ago, was a rather memorable occasion. I was teaching English as a foreign language to a group of architects, designers and engineers from a Swiss company that had been commissioned to build a new palace for the Shah of Persia somewhere on the mosquito-ridden shores of the Caspian Sea. A reasonable working knowledge of English was a prerequisite, so we were providing an intensive course.
They were a very pleasant bunch of guys, and for some reason they had been mixed with two executives from the major Swiss bank UBS. It may have been to avoid having two small groups, to keep the two groups from talking shop, or it could simply have been to lighten the ambience of a class consisting solely of bankers. Whatever the reason, the group dynamics were excellent. Everyone got along and they made surprisingly good progress in their English.
In order to keep the linguistic immersion intact, we all went out to lunch together and only English was spoken. Geneva has a plethora of good restaurants, and as their companies were footing the bill, we had no compunction about going to a decent one near to the school. This was back in the mid nineteen-seventies, when the economy was booming and there was no thought of austerity. I suppose in the end it was the Shah who was being billed for our meals.
On this particular day, one of the group announced it was his birthday and brought a bottle of champagne along “for the aperitif” at the end of the morning session. Consequently, we were already quite cheerful as we arrived at the restaurant. The guys immediately ordered a couple of bottles of wine, glasses were filled and already emptying by the time we came to order our meals.
I had never heard of moreilles, so I asked for an explanation. The dictionary translation didn’t help, as I had also never heard of morel mushrooms or Morchella. My gentlemanly entourage made attempts to draw pictures of this mushroom to enlighten me, all collapsing in giggles as their efforts became more and more phallic as the wine flowed ever more freely. Finally, assured that this strange mushroom was indeed a delicacy and as I am always curious to try foods I don’t know, I ordered the filet mignon de veau aux moreilles. I was not disappointed: if you are going to try a dish for the first time, it’s a good rule of thumb to try it in a good restaurant. This one was really very good.
Alas for me, however, I hadn’t kept an eye on the quantity of wine I was imbibing. In Switzerland, it’s considered impolite to let a person’s glass become empty, so as soon as there is only a centimetre or so left in a glass, it is refilled. My so-called gentlemen students were also playing a game of which I was unaware, namely to drink the teacher under the table. By the time I realised what they were up to, I was well past caring and downed a Benedictine, finding it as funny as they did.
We returned to our classroom after this carousal, and it was clear that I was in no fit state to teach. Pangs of conscience then struck my students, who tried to sober me up with coffee, but to no avail. Half an hour after the lesson started, I was fast asleep. Guilt and loyalty kept the class there until the lesson officially ended at 5 pm, when they managed to wake me up. Being basically decent chaps, they apologised – though they still found their prank amusing – and one of them drove me home, propped me against the doorpost, rang the bell and ran.
Since that day, whenever I have come across morel mushrooms on a menu, I have ordered them. They aren’t in the same category as truffles, but in my opinion come a pretty close second, and they are not terribly common.
Is it, or isn’t it?
Nobody is about to try them to find out. But …..