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Morel mushrooms are the stuff of legend and fantasy. Scattered upon the ground, they look like a little tribe of forest gnomes with magical powers, like beings from a game of Dungeons and Dragons. They taste like an earthy distillation of fungal flavors and aroma, and command respect from cooks and eaters alike, who speak of them with reverence. For pickers who hear the call, they are a beckon to adventure and profit.
This year’s flush of so-called “natural” morel mushrooms has begun to wane across North America. Naturals come up year after year in the same spots, zealously guarded by those who know them (unless they are in Michigan, the government of which publishes online maps so locals can go find them). But the majority of gathered morels, including virtually all of the ones available for purchase, were harvested in the fire-scarred mountains of the West. While a handful of naturals would be considered a decent harvest for a day’s foray, the fire-following varieties can be astoundingly prolific in spots that were burned the previous summer. Sometimes they grow in such density that it takes effort not to step on them. With buyers paying as much as $20 a pound (they can retail for more than $50/lb), good pickers can easily earn more than a thousand bucks a day for their efforts.
Wait, did I say “easily?” Scratch that.
Even if you live in the mountains you’ll probably have to drive a few hours and bump along dusty dirt roads, to a spot that may or may not have had morels, and may or may not have already been picked. Simply arriving at a burned forest is a good first step, but hardly a guarantee of success. Within burns, mushrooms are finicky as to where they will pop up. They prefer burnt fir stands to pine, but not too burnt-some blazes are so hot they sterilize the soil to the point where nothing will grow. To find these fleeting fungi with regularity requires thinking like a morel. They only appear where there is the correct balance of soil humidity and temperature, which means south-facing slopes will “pop” first, north-facing slopes last.
If you arrive at the perfect habitat a few days too early or too late, you’ll make the long drive home empty-handed; the time and gas invested in fruitless picking trips can quickly add up. Sometimes you show up at the perfect place at the perfect time, only to see the roadside littered with parked rigs, perhaps with out-of-state plates. People fight over good spots. They’ve died of exposure and dehydration, and been hit by burnt trees-nicknamed “widow makers”-that slam to earth with the slightest excuse, or none at all. There are rumors of people forced into picking to pay off gambling debts. Virtually nobody you meet will be happy to see you.
I’ve gotten lost, been delirious with dehydration, tumbled down mountain slopes, been chased by a moose, sucked dry by mosquitoes, and nearly broken my ankle in the middle of nowhere, all in pursuit of this glorious fungus. Once, picking morels in Alaska, I awoke in my tent to gunshots, as a frustrated mushroom buyer emptied the clip of his pistol into an inflatable raft that had spilled hundreds of pounds of mushrooms into an icy river.
Getting reliable information is tricky in morel country, and those you ask would sooner lend you their ATM cards and tell you their pins than steer you in the right direction. Thus the expression: “Anyone foolish enough to ask a picker where he found his will be foolish enough to believe the answer.”
But all the pain, frustration and expense of getting to the goods will quickly evaporate at the sight of a little fun-guy poking through the black duff. You quickly scan the area for others, pull out your knife, drop to your knees, and start picking. The endorphins and adrenaline surge with the primal thrill of the hunt as you fill your bucket, and every time you eat them you relive this feeling, and the sublime connection to the landscape that it embodies. If you dry them for later use, the feelings and flavors can be accessed whenever you rehydrate a few.
So if you have to pay more than wish at the market for them, think about the work, risk, gas, and other expenses that the harvester went through. The buyers take on risk as well, as morel can rot very quickly, and even under the best of conditions will shrink daily. Larry Evans, a picker and buyer in Missoula, Montana, says his inventory loses about five percent of its value every day.
Prices are always high at the start of the season, and will start to ease as the season wears on. So frugal morel purchasers might want to sit tight. Another way to get more fungal mouthfuls for your dollar is to combine morels with your standard button mushrooms. The flavor of the wild ones is so strong that it will augment the relatively mild flavor of the buttons.
Morels should be cooked; eaten raw they can cause gastrointestinal distress. They respond well to being combined with butter and cream, as in the following recipe that is as good as it gets.
1 cup morels, either whole or sliced
¼ cup heavy cream
1 T butter
zest and juice of one quarter lime
½ medium yellow onion, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Button mushrooms if you’re cheap
¼ cup dry sherry
Melt the butter in a heavy bottom pan. Add onion and morels (and buttons if using). Cook together until onions are translucent and the morels give up their moisture-about ten minutes. Add sherry, and let it cook off. Add nutmeg, lime zest and juice. Cook a moment and add the cream. Cook five more minutes, season with salt and pepper, and serve.
You could serve these on toast or in puff pastry, toss them with noodles, or eat them out of the pan in their buttery, creamy glory. Whether you went to the trouble of picking them, or forked over your hard-earned cash, the effort and expense will melt away as your mouth heads west to a burnt forest, the exact location of which you will never know.