Saturday, May 23, 2015

Fire Morels

Morels in the griddle, simmering in butter and Tawny
Port over a open maplewood fire, with tri-tip steaks
and asparagus waiting to be sauteed in the gravy.
Okay, this is very possibly the best meal in the world, so I had to brag about it a little bit here and make your mouth water.

Last weekend my sister Kay and I went up to the Carlton Complex Fire burn area (off highway 153 in the Methow Valley, between Twisp and Pateros, in the region northern Washington state where the Cascades slope majestically down to the eastern plains). Our goal was to hunt first-year Fire Morel mushrooms, which typically spring up in such a burn area that has swept through Douglas Fir or other candidate trees at certain altitudes.

In case you're not aware, Morels (Morchella tomentosa, M. esculenta, M. conica and similar species) are considered to be among the best eating mushrooms in the world. They grow in many areas of the world and are common in the northwestern and northeastern parts of the U.S.A. during the spring. Michigan is probably the state where they grow in greatest abundance. They grow predominantly in the wild, although I have read about one facility in Michigan that has learned the complex secret to domesticating Morels and growing them in the laboratory.

For a reason not everyone understands, but probably relates to soil chemistry, Morels (particularly M. tomentosa, the greys) are most abundant in the spring in areas that have previously experienced a forest fire. They grow most abundantly the first spring after the fire. They are lean the second spring, but if the second spring has been relatively dry and the third spring gets good rains, they can come back. The fourth spring is the leanest of all, then they return to normal levels of rarity after that.

Kay can hike the slopes like a mountain goat, if there
are possibly any Fire Morels to be found up there.
They also grow occasionally in areas of timber that has been harvested, and in old apple orchards primarily in the Northeast. Here in the Puget Sound region, we occasionally get them in beauty bark beds, which contain ground bark from Douglas Fir trees which I assume have hosted the Morchella mycelium. I'd been looking (fruitlessly) in the forests of Puget Sound for them for years, when a friend who lived a mile away sent me a snapshot of a mushroom growing in his lawn. "It looks like a dog turd," he said. "What is it?" I recognized it immediately as a Morel, and quickly rid him of his infestation.

There are several varieties of "false Morel" so you have to know what you're doing, harvesting them. There are Verpa bohemica (which grow in lowlands under the cottonwoods common in this area), which look and taste a lot like true Morels, and most people can eat them (if cooked well, as you also have to do wtih true morels), but a higher degree of incidental allergies occur with them. The Wikipedia page on Verpa says they are "edible if properly prepared." (By the way, check out the meaning of "Verpa" on that page. I won't repeat it here!) The most telling difference between Verpa and Morchella is that the latter is hollow inside, whereas the former is filled with white fluff.

My son and I have also found "Snow Morels," Gyromitra (gigas or montana), which look a bit like a calf brains or disfigured black morels (though the color is more reddish). They are also said to have an excellent flavor, but have a toxin related to hydrazine (the primary component in rocket fuel) which must be cooked out first (avoiding the fumes). And even so most experts advise not eating them due to the risk, according to what I've read. The ones we found, we threw out. Better safe than sorry.

Anyway, last Sunday afternoon we started hunting about 3 p.m. By 6 p.m. we had thoroughly searched two of the three canyons that we had identified as potential candidates on a map, but hadn't yet turned up a single Morel. (We did find one lonely Bolete! Slightly off-season.)

There were several mushroom buyers who had set up shop down in the town of Carlton, so we descended the mountain to go talk with them. While there, we saw a number of hunters coming in with bins full of Fire Morels. I struck up a conversation with one, and told him we'd been hunting all afternoon and hadn't found any. He laughed out loud.

"It took me three days up here, hunting, before I got into my first patch," he said. "But once I figured out where they were hiding, it wasn't too bad."

I was glad he shared that. I didn't feel as bad then about my lack of patience.

I told the mushroom buyer I didn't want to return home empty-handed (we only had time to go check one more canyon before dark fell), and asked if he could sell me any. He said he couldn't, but he would give one of the sellers from whom he was buying permission to sell to me instead! "I was going to pay this guy $7 a pound for his top grade Morels," he shared. "Ask him what he would sell them to you for."

The answer was $10 per pound. Which was way less than I expected to pay for top-grade, table-ready Fire Morels*. So they sorted through his bins of blacks and greys (and a few blondes), and weighed out slightly more than a pound into my bag. I paid him $10.60, and then tipped the buyer my remaining change ($4.40) for his generosity. Even $15 didn't seem too bad (to me) for reaping part of the benefit of his three days of work (and our five hours of fruitless searching).

After we thus procured something to show for our trouble, we went and hunted in our third canyon, once again without finding anything, until it became too dark to continue. Kay helped herself to a few of the morels I'd purchased, and we parted ways.

The weather turned nasty that night on the way home, and a bad accident involving a hapless deer and a trailer full of motorbikes in the lanes right in front of me delayed my return until about 1:30 a.m. But, despite all the bad luck, I returned home a happy hunter with my nearly-a-pound of top grade morels.

Nathan and I found these nice Black Morels during our Spring 2014 hunt.
Most of what we found, we located in the first hour of two full days of
hunting. And we ate them all that first night!
And Monday night my son and his wife came over and we cooked them up into the meal pictured above: tri-tip steaks seared in a cast iron skillet then grilled over an open flame fueled with chunks of maple hardwood. The morels were sauteed in the meat juicy pan with butter and a sweet Tawny Port. The gravy that resulted was then used to saute a nice bunch of asparagas. With more butter.

Add mashed potatoes and watermelon chunks, and wash it all down with a nice Cabernet, and we duplicated for our spouses the meal that Nathan and I had enjoyed in the mountains of Eastern Washington following our first successful morel hunt in the spring of 2014.

"What did you think?" I asked my wife, after dinner.

"They were good," she said, "but after years of you talking about how wonderful Morels are, I think you set my expectations a little too high. They're just mushrooms, after all. And it must be disappointing to have to buy them, after driving all that way."


Where we hunted was about a four-and-a-half hour drive from home. Each way. But, I don't regret it. It's the Mighty Morel we're talking about here, after all! And it's not every day you get to enjoy one. I do plan to go back, once or twice more before the season is over. And find one (or hopefully more), I will!

*About Morel grading: Three grades are used to describe a Morel just brought in from the field. Grade 1 means table ready -- crisp and fresh. Grade 2s have some flaws which relegate them to "dehydrate only" status. And grade 3s are moldy, or broken, or floppy, and otherwise not worthy even of being dehydrated. They are usually thrown out behind the tent, into a pile which the buyer hopes will, next year, spring forth some nice, new mushrooms right near his buying spot!