Local morel hunters are looking forward to a bumper haul this spring. That’s because 2017 was another record year for forest fires in the Pacific Northwest, and the vast majority of the morel mushroom harvest comes from our scorched mountain forests, where several species of the fungi have evolved to flourish with the fire ecology of the arid West.
We know that morels thrive in areas of the forest burned by fire, but otherwise much of their life cycle remains shrouded in mystery. What’s not mysterious is why people around the world love them so. A favorite of both restaurant chefs and home cooks, the morel is like no other ingredient in the pantry. It’s as meaty as a cut of beef and yet perfect for vegetarians, and “mushroomy” doesn’t begin to describe its flavor, which is also characterized as woodsy, loamy, smoky and musky. R.W. Apple, the late New York Times reporter and a celebrated eater, said morels were “faintly sweet, hinting of caraway and bell peppers.”
While scouring last year’s burn zone is a great way to fill baskets with this expensive delicacy (in grocery stores and farmers’ markets, expect prices north of $20/pound), the die-hard hunter relishes the challenge of spotting morels that pop up year after year, if fleetingly, in forests that haven’t burned. We call these morels “naturals,” because their lifecycle seems more natural and regular than that of the burn morels, which only fruit in the wake of conflagration. Like so many other choice wild mushrooms, the naturals emerge from the duff and moss of the forest floor. The trick is finding them.
Successful hunting of naturals (as well as other mushrooms) requires a deep understanding of their habitat: elevation, tree canopy and microclimate. Put this combination of variables together and you can unlock nature’s Rubik’s cube.
As they say, though, it’s about the journey. If I revealed all the secrets for reliably finding naturals, I’d have an angry mob of longtime mushroom hunters on my doorstep tomorrow. It takes years of practice and dedication. For the novice hunter, here’s some general advice: Study topographical maps, put boots to the ground, and plan to spend hours and miles bushwhacking around the woods. Take a compass and learn how to use it.
Morel habitat differs across the country. In our region, go east of the Cascade Crest and don’t be hesitant to venture right up to the snowline, especially later in the season on hot days. Morels tolerate and even seem to prefer disturbed landscapes, so explore busy forests—those places where hikers, off-roaders, equestrians and even loggers all vie for the same piece of turf. Keep notes. Pay attention to the types of wildflowers you see on a successful hunt; these will become future indicators, telling you your timing is right. Yellow balsamroot blooming down in the lower valleys is a good sign. Especially take note of the tree species where you find morels.
And remember that a morel hunt is so much more than filling your basket. It’s a chance to greet the colorful parade of migrant songbirds that arrives each spring from far-flung wintering grounds; to spy a cow elk with its newborn calf in a clearing; to wander off-trail haunts that rarely see a human footprint. It’s a treasure hunt that rewards one with a greater understanding of the natural world—and sometimes a really good meal.
My favorite way to eat morels is over a camp stove in the morel patch. (Always cook morels; if eaten when raw, they can make you sick.) When I go on a hunt, I bring a little garlic and butter with me, a good crusty baguette and one of those leather bota bags full of wine, like a character out of Hemingway. OK, I’m kidding about the bota bag, but isn’t it pretty to think so? Enjoy this unparalleled lunch in the woods.
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2–3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 pound morels, chopped
- 1 baguette, sliced
- 1 tub ricotta cheese (optional)
- salt and pepper
- Melt butter in pan over medium heat. Sauté garlic until fragrant and golden (careful not to burn), add morels and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms start to brown at the edges.
- Spread optional ricotta on sliced baguette and top with a dollop of sautéed morels.
- Enjoy with a sip of wine or beer, toasting the beneficence of the woods.
Langdon Cook is the author of the recently published book Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table. See more at langdoncook.com.