At the farmers markets of the West, it’s common to find morel mushrooms for sale in little baskets. They look gnomish, with honeycomb-like caps atop stubby stalks, each individual with a slightly different shape and posture.
Wild to the core, this stubborn species of fungus has refused all efforts at domestication and only grows where it chooses. This means every single morel you’ll ever see was hunted and harvested by hand, in the wild. Morels offer mysterious woodland flavors, usually with a hint of smoke, as the vast majority are plucked from the charred ashy landscapes left behind by forest fires. From such rough and tumble upbringings, you can bet those morels have stories.
Morels are so sumptuous and easy to prepare, and keep so perfectly when dehydrated, they are easily my choice for top wild mushroom status. I’ve hunted the freaky fungal fruits up and down the burned mountainsides of Montana, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. When you go after morels, you pick up a few stories of your own.
Once I was chased by a punky moose, a scrawny juvenile delinquent testing his limits. I turned the tables with some hurled rocks and sticks and sent the bully running. (And then, like some cartoon character, he turned around and chased me again.)
I’ve gotten lost, ran out of water, and had to drink from swamps just so I could think straight and keep going through the eerie silence of a burnt forest. I followed the sound of my hunting partner honking the horn of my pickup to guide me back.
When you eat the tender, earth-toned fruits collected during those grueling, day-long games of hide and seek, you relive those sweaty moments, the particles and the memories of the days where all that mattered were the mushrooms.
Tales From Morel Camp
Nobody is really sure how or why morels appear after a fire. There hasn’t been much research. Most of the knowledge of morel ecology is known to the pickers themselves, who are, suffice it to say, less inclined to share what they know than the average scientist.
If you know your way around a campfire, you might be able to learn something that might be true at picker camp, spots in the forest where rival harvesters form uneasy communities out of necessity. In these sometimes rowdy places, mushroom buyers set up tables outside their vehicles and compete for the harvesters and their bounty. The price changes frequently, sometimes hourly. Some buyers are known to be untrustworthy, while the pickers, who can be cagey, gruff, even hostile, are the ones who will haul you out if they find you in the woods with a broken ankle.
When two healthy pickers bump into each other in the field, it’s an awkward, mutually disappointed truce. Back at camp, though, sometimes cabin fever creeps in. I’ll never forget the time Lady Jess leaped over a rather large fire when some fool wouldn’t pass the bottle of Yukon Jack. That was a few days before I woke to the sound of gunshots in the 2 a.m. arctic dawn. A mushroom buyer shot up a raft that had capsized and dumped thousands of dollars’ worth of fresh fungus into the West Fork of Fortymile Creek. At least he blamed the raft and not the poor, shivering Filipino kid who’d been riding the ill-fated craft.
That season, 2016, took place on 6 million acres of forest that had burned the year before between Tok and Chicken, Alaska, and the pickers swarmed in from all points south. The Filipino kid, a native Spanish speaker, was part of a crew of Mexican pickers, who were legendary around town for how deep they would go. You’d see their red van parked by the side of the road, with no attempt to pull off into some discreet location because they knew that nobody else would walk as far. Despite losing that literal boat-load of fungus—and to this day I don’t know who took the loss—the red van had some five-figure days.
As for me, I was in it for the mushrooms themselves, not the money. Every time I sold my haul, I felt like I was selling my children. Each of those mushrooms was a magical phoenix rising from the ashes, a little treasure that I had spotted myself, feeling that thrill of a successful hunt. These fun guys were my friends, and much to the chagrin of the buyer at Camp Happy Mosquito, I quit selling. I turned my Subaru into a mushroom dehydrator and brought home bags full of dried morels.
Those dried morels I brought back from Alaska served me for years, and never did lose a step of flavor. Cooking with dried mushrooms is an art I’ll address another time, because now, when the fungus among us is fresh, there’s no need.
Right about now, next year’s morel habitat is being created by this year’s fires, while last year’s fires left a bumper crop in certain western states that’s being harvested as we speak. They might not be for sale in your farmers markets, but you can find them in your local fancy produce section, and you can be sure that they were picked wild from some burned forest.
Morel picking is challenging, and success is hardly guaranteed. After a few tries, simply buying them starts to look like a better and better deal. And when you support an industry that relies on wilderness, you are supporting wilderness itself.
Whether you went to the trouble and adventure of picking the morels yourself or forked over your hard-earned cash, the expense and adversity will melt away when the flavor shepherds your mouth to a burnt forest, the exact location of which only the morels know. And they’re not telling.
Morels in Sherry Cream Sauce
This recipe is an easy starting point into the world of morel cookery.
The ingredients are measured per half-pound of fresh morels. You can also add thinly sliced button mushrooms to stretch out the morels without diluting the flavor. For each half-pound of button mushrooms you add, add the below quantities of other ingredients as well. If you were to use a half-pound each of fresh morels and buttons, for instance, you would double the quantities of the other ingredients.
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 medium yellow onion, minced
- 1/2 pound fresh morels, sliced lengthwise
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup dry sherry
- Pinch of nutmeg
- Zest and juice of 1/4 lemon
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- Salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the onion and mushrooms. Cook together until onions are translucent and the morels give up their moisture, about 10 minutes. Add the sherry, and let it cook off. Add the nutmeg, and the lemon zest and juice. Stir it all around and cook a moment, then add the cream. Cook 5 more minutes, season with salt and pepper and serve.
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.