Morel Mania by Eugenia Bone
I have traveled all over the country in order to pick morel mushrooms. If I ever did the math, I would probably find out I was paying a lot more by hunting them than if I just bought them from a store. But then I’d miss out on the profound pleasures of the quiet hunt and the lusty pleasure of a stocked pantry.
Morels, which are the fruiting bodies of various species of fungi in the Morchella genus, are native to temperate forests—forests that endure a winter snow—across the northern hemisphere (though introduced morels grow in the southern hemisphere as well). They flush in the spring under dead trees, dying trees, and living trees. But people have found them growing in the weirdest places, like landscaping woodchips, fireplaces, even in cracks in a sheetrock wall. If you ask a mycologist where morels grow, he’ll tell you, “Wherever they want.”
My first morel hunt was with the New York Mycological Society, my local mushroom club. The club hunts an abandoned apple orchard that looks like one gigantic tick-infested bramble patch. Lots of people turn out for the foray, so not only is it arduous to find the morels, but there is a lot of competition, too. Indeed, after hours of crawling under the thickets and poison ivy to check the base of the decaying trees, I finally spotted one large brown morel. And then I saw her. Apple cheeked and undaunted by the prickers, her gray bun pulled askew by snapping branches crawled an elderly lady from the opposite direction toward the very morel I’d spotted. I deferred to her, of course, as if the mushroom between us were a seat on the bus.
I was definitely bummed out to be going home empty handed. And adding insult to injury, that very woman who had picked my only morel was taking a little open-mouthed snooze in the back seat of my car, her basket of morels hugged tight in her arms, while I coped with the traffic over the George Washington Bridge. It was clear that I needed an environment that offered a bigger payload and so in the ensuing years I hunted morels in the Midwest, in the Sierra Nevadas, and on a forest fire burn in Montana. Each spot was beautiful and dramatic in its own way, and each yielded a bounty of morels.
I attended the Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship hunt, which took place in a dying elm forest near the windy city of Henry, a small central Illinois town on the Illinois River. I hooked up with Al Nighsonger, a biker type fellow with all the trimmings: leather jacket, jackboots, a long grey ponytail, and his wife, Dee, a former Iraq war Air Force gunner in a soldier’s cap. Al led me along, a sixteen-ounce can of Busch beer in one hand, smoking cigarettes the whole time, pointing with his lit butt at one tree or another. In the Midwest morels may be found in abundance under dying elm trees. And due to Dutch elm disease, a fungal blight, there are a lot of dying elms.
“You’ll find morels under that there elm,” he said, pointing at a dense thicket. While Al sat on a stump, I crawled under, my clothes and hair tugged and ripped as I pushed through. The undergrowth was so thick I couldn’t see where I was going. I could only look over my shoulder at Al, who gestured for me to keep going, keep going, with a wave of his hand, and I obeyed, crawling like an infantryman through the nettles and briers. Using this technique, Al and I found about 35 hard won morels—not nearly enough to win the championship, but enough for dinner.
An auction followed the hunt, and at one point a shaggy pale-eyed dude from Los Angeles told me he always finds morels after he’s done a good deed, and he thought it was due to divine intervention. I’d heard stuff like this before. Hunters who stumble upon a great patch of mushrooms will wear the same clothes again, thinking they bring them luck. Some hunters carry a small basket so as not to alert the mushrooms. “Never say the M word in the woods,” they’ll warn, and never pick the first morel you see, because they send a signal underground to the other morels and then they’ll all go into hiding. There is certainly a feeling of inevitability when you do find them—almost like it is your destiny to find that mushroom. After all, many fungi live underground. They are by their very nature mysterious. But on the other hand, the championship winner was a PhD in mycology, so obviously he enjoyed an edge based not on superstition, luck, outwitting the mushroom spirits, or by agreement with God, but because he’d taken a lot of biology courses.
Later, Al and Dee also took me to their spot “where no one else ever goes,” a military installation near the Peoria airport. Dee showed her pass and, after yucking it up for a few minutes with the baby-faced boys holding automatic rifles, drove us to a beautiful moist forest deep within the base. What they’d said was true. We had the woods to ourselves. However, the forest was at the end of a firing range, and practice was going on. Guns popped and crackled and bullets whizzed overhead periodically, buzzing through the high branches, nipping off twigs. I hunted with my shoulders bunched around my ears, trying to make my head a smaller target. “Oh, that’s just the police practicing,” said Dee, utterly unperturbed. “Now if it were machine gunners, I’d say walk low.”
I heard there were even more morels to be found in California, on a late May Wild About Mushrooms foray in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. David Campbell, a well-known California-based mushroom hunter, conducts the hunt from a campground in the Crystal Basin area. I found some morels under live pines, but most were growing in debased places: around the outhouses, next to fire pits, and under picnic tables, and though David explained to me that morels like “disturbed earth,” it seemed to me that they simply preferred to be around people.
Over the course of the weekend, which also included some excellent meals (scrambled eggs with morels that tasted all the better because we were eating outside and the air was chewy with smoke fire and the morels had been picked moments before, smoked pork loin stuffed with sausage and morels with a sauce of morels and caramelized onion washed down with copious amounts of Northern California wine), I found about 7 pounds of morels.
I had hunted under dying and living trees, under apple, elm, and fir. But for the real morel payload, you’ve got to hunt a fire. If there has been a forest fire in a national park during the summer and the following spring is wet, then morels may bloom in vast quantities—thousands per acre—amidst the wreckage of the incinerated trees. Commercial pickers descend on these burn sites by the hundreds and the Forest Service has to set up campsites and permits to accommodate them. Why morels are so prolific after a forest fire is a matter of dispute: maybe the morels flush as a result of the destruction of their host trees. Whatever it is, burn morels tend to come up only for a year, whereas morels that grow in non-burned areas will come up for many years.
I went to hunt fire-ravaged woodlands in Montana’s Flathead National Forest with my friend, the photographer Andrew Geiger. We camped with the gritty circuit pickers, 1,000 or so transient people, primarily Southeast Asians, who pick mushrooms 6 to 10 months of the year, following the flush of matsutake, porcini and chanterelles, and morels around the northwest quarter of the country. A circuit picker probably collects the wild mushrooms you buy in a store or restaurant.
Burn morels prefer to grow in areas littered with dead conifer needles, along the path of tree roots, and in shady dips and boles in the earth. But walking around in those blackened woods, it was hard to pull my eyes away from the long view: the destruction stretched as far as I could see. When I finally did cast my eyes down I had to freeze: all around my boots—and probably even under them—hundreds of morels poked their brainy caps up through the ashy pine needles.
After just one hour, we had collected about 10 pounds of morels. All along the road back to camp, we saw the tents of the morel buyers, independent contractors who work for wild mushroom distribution companies. It is not uncommon for buyers to purchase tens of thousands of dollars worth of mushrooms a day. There is no real accounting of the wild mushroom harvest, either in volume or in dollars, but the forest ecologist David Pilz estimated the commercial morel harvest in Oregon and Washington in 2005, half of which was shipped overseas, was over 770,000 pounds. At today’s retail prices, that’s over $300 million. Indeed, wild mushroom transactions may be the largest legal cash-based commerce in the USA.
Morels have been successfully grown, although I’ve heard they don’t taste like much. Likewise plenty of connoisseurs think burn morels aren’t as tasty as natural morels. It may be because cultivated and burn morels lack the complex stew of microbial symbionts found in natural, non-traumatized ecosystems. I don’t know. Personally, I’d never turn down a morel; even if grew in a fireplace.
Keep in mind that all raw mushrooms are indigestible and some edible mushrooms are poisonous when eaten raw. Raw morels are poisonous, but cooked they are one of the most delicious foods on the planet.
Chicken with Sherry and Morels
Yield: 4 main course servings
This is a poor man’s version of the very elegant French regional dish, chicken with vin jaune/Chateau Chalon. You can make it with dried, fresh, or canned morels.
8 chicken thighs with bone in and skin on (you can use any chicken parts or even a whole chicken)
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups dry sherry Salt and freshly ground black pepper
At least 1 cup dried morels, but more if you’ve got them (see note)
1/2 cup heavy cream
Heat the butter in a large heavy casserole with a fitted lid over a medium heat. Add the chicken and lightly brown all over, about 20 minutes. Add the sherry, salt and pepper, and the dried morels (if you use fresh, add them later: I will tell you when). Bring to a boil, and then lower the heat to low, and cover. Gently boil the chicken in the sherry for about 40 minutes, until it is very tender. If using fresh, frozen or canned morels, add them in the last 20 minutes or so of cooking. Remove the chicken and keep warm. You will probably have about 2 cups of sauce (sherry and drippings combined). Add the cream. Turn the heat up to medium and reduce the sauce, uncovered, by about a third. Check the seasoning and return the chicken to the pot. Cook for an additional 5 minutes to heat through.
NOTE: You can throw the dried morels into the stew, or you can rehydrate the morels by placing them in a bowl and covering them with water and allowing them to soak for about 10 minutes. When you add the morels, add their liquid too. The benefit of this is you have more liquid in the sauce, which is good if you are cooking a whole chicken this way and need a lot of braising liquid. The reduction time will increase if you add the morel water.