Morel Real Things
Fire morels are my favorite thing to find in the wild. At least until winning lottery tickets start turning up in the duff. Morel mushrooms, grouped under the genus Morchella, show up all over the world and are prized culinary artifacts. Their desirability is enhanced, no doubt, by the fact that they aren't cultivated commercially, which means that someone has to go pluck them from the forest floor. Or sometimes from their front yard. Morels will sprout occasionally from a newly landscaped playground, or in the raised beds of a city garden. But urban morels are wildcards. Here in the western states the most reliable way to find morels is in the desolation of a recently burned conifer forest. A forest fire is an incredible reset button in nature. In one dramatic event a huge amount of vegetable matter is reduced to an ashy blanket of nutrients, and it's this supercharged release of nutrients that fire morels seem to require to bloom. Or maybe it's the removal of lots of other organic material from the forest floor. Or maybe spring melt-off and run-off interacts with the soil differently after a burn. Whatever the case, in the spring following a forest fire, in a landscape that seems almost lunar in its barreness, morel mushrooms will push their way through the brittle duff.
For most people the awareness of forest fires is limited to a few news headlines, maybe some television coverage if country homes or communities are impacted. But to zero in on fire morels you have to become a student of fire seasons. Happily the internet provides all the information necessary to be a successful morel hunter: online maps of forest fires and fire incident reports, which can be overlaid on standard topographic maps showing roads, trails, and land ownership boundaries. And since there are many months between the summer/fall fire season and the spring mushroom season, there's plenty of time to study up and figure out some potential picking spots.
Understanding exactly when the morels will show up, however, is a less precise undertaking. Seasonal weather and local climate make it difficult to pin down, and the morel "season," such as it is, can last for weeks. Rather than be anxious about trying to choose one day that's guaranteed to deliver mushrooms, I view fire morel hunting as an opportunity to take a series of healthful walks in the woods, with the possibility of mushrooms. As an added bonus, these walks are typically on the eastern slopes of the Cascade mountains (within reasonable striking distance from Seattle) and so benefit from more consistently favorable weather than the often still-wet-west.
My first walk this year was a scouting trip into a large burn area near Leavenworth, WA on April 12th. It was a really early venture, from the typical morel season perspective, but our winter and spring had been so mild this year I thought it might still prove productive. I didn't find any morels on that outing, but I did get a good sense of the area, identifying where I wanted to return to explore on a subsequent visit, and I found some encouraging indicators of the mushroom potential of the area -- lots of little brown cup mushrooms. Their scientific name is Geopyxis carbonaria, which more commonly gets broken down to "charcoal loving elf-cup." Pretty cute, right?
It turns out that Geopyxis densities following a fire are strongly correlated with Morchella, so I came away with raised expectations that the area would produce morels soon. Plus, it was just beautiful out there. A burn area has its own desolate beauty, and also serves to highlight new green growth. The greens are even greener, the flowers a little brighter, next to a burn.
I returned to the area three weeks later. Sure enough, the morels showed up. It's hard to describe the excitement and satisfaction of finding these mushrooms. They can be very hard to spot, as they are incredibly camoflauged in colors and textures that mimic the forest floor. But after some eye-training it's amazing what your brain and eyes can do together. You begin to see them out of the corner of your eye, or from a distance. And every find delivers a little jolt of dopamine -- your brain rewarding you for a hunting-gathering job well done. While searching for morels time becomes fluid, aches and pains disappear -- you're in the zone, in a state of flow.
My mushrooming partner and I picked for only three hours or so, and came away with several hundred morels between the two of us. Back home, I dry the mushrooms. Dried, they are basically shelf stable. I can reach for them all throughout the coming year to punch up a risotto or pasta dish, or dress up a steak. I like to find recipes from Hank Shaw's site, or from northwest foragers Langdon Cook or Becky Selengut. Becky's recent cookbook, Shroom, is an inspiration for fungal-focused cooking.
Morel hunting definitely hits a lot of real things: hunting and gathering, forest time, wild foods. It's a simple past-time requiring no specialized gear, but boy is it rewarding. The season is on right now, so get out there and get your hands dirty with some fire morels!