Eating Crow or Other Lowfalutin' Stuff

Copyright © by Patrick Hamilton, Mycochef

As we all know, and probably ponder on often, there are gopher goings on and then there are gopher goings on.

This morning I'm sitting here trying to shake out at least a little of the brain residue (is it like skin that turns scaley and falls off?) from two bottles of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin brought by a lady friend to go with the fish tacos and morel/tomato/shallot/tarragon/salsa I made last night for dinner and I look like one of those bobble-headed dolls that can occupy the space above the back seat of really stupid vehicles. With my obviously oversized and pained head now feeling only a little smaller than my headache I gaze off with eyes sort of floating adrift in their red sockets struggling to focus through the large living room window towards my garden looking south in-between the already (late June) high Silver Queen corn, Indian maize, popcorn, Midnight Sun sunflowers and other interesting-to-me stuff and here comes this big raven flying low, left to right, across my field of vision and it has got some thing squirming in its mouth. Whoa.

And chasing the big bird are smaller black birds darting and dashing at it like those biplanes attacking King Kong while he was holding that little woman. But this is different, as usual.

I can't really tell but it looks to me that maybe a baby bird got nabbed from its nest by this very large black bird. So I grab my binoculars which I keep by the front door for exactly such circumstances as this incident (they seem to occur in my life with certain regularity) and make quickly down the deck steps and then step quietly around the garden fence (green mason's string strung on redwood stakes to keep my dog, Danny Boy, out--it works) so as to not scare off the raven which has alighted atop a good edibles mushroom-producing 60 foot Monterey pine in a stand down my dirt drive about 75 yards away.

Hmm, I wonder while approaching the tree, is it really a raven or a very large crow? I creep happy and smug with the knowledge from childhood remembering that which a wise person once told me about ravens and crows. "Ravens walk and crows hop." Yep, that's what he had said.

Or was it the other way around?, I am starting to think. "Crows hop and ravens walk?" Yeah, that's it.

No, damn, that's the same thing. Hmm, now I am not nearly so smug nor as happy anymore but fortunately that does not get in the way of closing in on the bird with the unhappy creature in its mouth in my tree and definitely not in the way of writing my column.

I once wrote for a different publication about another bird incident involving an osprey with a large trout in its talons that could not land without dropping the fish. I watched it fly around and around and around in ever decreasing circles trying to figure out stuff. It got confused in all that circuitous traveling brainwork and slammed into the windshield of our truck and I then wrote about a recipe for breast of flat headed osprey with black chanterelles.

It is amazing to some how mushrooms do keep popping up in this mushroom cooking column which sometimes starts out there, way out there, but eventually comes back like a wayward child but with TLC for its caregivers.

I was real close now to the crow/raven and small animal show and saw that it was a gopher with the bird sharing the tippy-top branches of that pine.

But this was not a mutual consent cohabitation--nothing sweetly domestic like that was going on up in this tree. No, this was a one sided deal. An understanding or decision apparently was made where the raven/crow was going to eat the gopher just as I made it to the base of the trunk when, from its murderous beak, the darn bird drops the little guy and he free falls about five feet before hitting the first of what seems like every branch on the way down, little arms and legs flailing, mouth wide open, silently screaming I bet gopher expletives as he crashes from one jagged and piercing limb to another, grabbing the air, and I'm looking up at what branch is the next he'll be smacked on and I see that it is a very close one, only fifteen feet or so above me, and right then my dog makes some weird noise like, "Yikes," with canine inflections and intonations which distracts me for just an instant but I snap back my head to continue tracking the pathetic descent above and I see he misses that lowest branch and plops right on my upturned head. Jeez.

I have a broken gopher on my face and I feel bad for him and more than a little silly for myself.

Danny is staring at me I can tell by peeking through the teeny broken extremities and I am hoping that no other living creature sees what has just happened. The gopher can not see.

My dog, now hours later, still glances at me from time to time. Can an Australian Shepherd smirk?

Thankfully this morning's incident took no more time than it did to write about it so we have lots of time left for the rest of the column.

Wired members (you know, that has had different meanings at different times in my life) of the Mycological Society of San Francisco use an internet bulletin board called "onelist" to communicate news of mushrooms to the group as a whole. It has been only a little over a year now and lots of data, most of it good, is sent and read almost daily by lots of mushroomers. Last month (May) I was able to monitor mucho morel hunting information regarding the burned areas of last year's fires in the national forests and decided finally when and where to go.

Connie Green and I drove up one Saturday morning very early for the 4 1/2 hour trip to an area entirely new to us (in that we had no knowledge of spring boletes, natural morels, fall boletes, etc., from this area). It was Memorial Day weekend but we didn't care about potential crowds because this place was not real close to any body of water and therefore very few folks would be there. Only mushroom loonies--you know the type.

The forest was drop dead gorgeous leading up to right before we reached the volcanic area surrounding where burn was. Doug-firs, Sugar and Ponderosa pines, Western cedars, Black oaks, Western dogwoods in bloom, the usual beauties were all there. But it seemed that this time the trees came in second in specialness, they were outdone by these many lovely little patches of violet tufted wild onions, apparently placed perfectly in absolutely flawless spots amongst the lava flows by the hand of God, or Martha Stewart. It was a good thing.

And those little wild bulbs would be great later on the grill alongside wild salmon steaks brought from Bodega Bay, sauced with sautéed "burns" in a shallot sherry cream.

Connie and I soon found the correct turn off, having directions from Mike Boom (a past president of the MSSF and very good friend of ours), and we stopped at the first crossroads and went right. Wrong. We took a short walk downhill through park-like acres of burned forest with pillows of brown needles buoying our steps and making me feel a little like a kid bouncing on a mattress. Fun but no morels.

Back up the now steep hill (didn't seem to be on the way down) to the vehicle we'd been cooped up in for those 4 1/2 hours of getting here--the same van Connie used the day before to deliver Hens of the Woods, morels, spring Porcini, Bulgarian chanterelles and more treats to places like Zuni Cafe, Lark Creek Inn, The French Laundry, etc.

We decided to then drive a ways in the other direction until we'd find something that looked productive.

Now I am not the best mushroom picker around but I am very good at finding just the right habitat. A fishing guide buddy of mine always tells his clients that, "I'll put you over fish." Well, I can put you over mushrooms but it's up to you to further find them.

I spotted a stream coming down though a valley right at a place to pull over and park but it appeared, of course, that others before us might too have seen this to be possibly good.

So what--d'ya think they would have gotten 'em all? I don't think so and besides, if you don't go you won't know. Period.

We put one, then decided to grab another, handled brown grocery bag in the back pockets of my Carhartt coveralls. Connie had her white 5 gallon picking bucket with holes drilled all over the bottom and we started upvalley poking around under the blistered-bark willows and charcoaled dogwoods allowing our eyes to adjust to the burn environment and to tune themselves to be able to discern objects (like morels) which should seem very out of place and usually very hard to see in this already surreal landscape.

I don't know about you but when my head is tuning into stuff and I am mushroom hunting there's a song from "The Wizard of Oz" that sometimes starts to run, sort of reel to reel, really, through my brain. It's the one that goes, "Come out, come out, wherever you are." It could make me feel silly but it's the kind of thing that I always keep to myself.

We noticed very few footprints and those were just at the beginning of the valley. None were further up the deer trail where were walking. But morels were. . . .

This day they began to appear reluctantly only one at a time at first. So slowly that we almost returned to the vehicle to drive some miles north and a few hundred feet higher to a different burn thinking that where we were it was too warm, too many folks had been here, too dry, too blah, blah, blah. But too many times we had left too much before truly looking enough and this was not going to be one of those times. Nope.

Another morel, then a group of a couple way in close to the base of a multiple stalked blackened willow. "Look over here, a cluster of fifteen." "No, check this." " I mean it, come here and see these next ones by the. . . ."

It was not too long afterward that I thought to myself that now the memories of this can begin.

We filled up the two bags and the bucket in about an hour and a half then decided to climb down the mountain, drive, and arrange our camp back up the road from where we had come in.

We made a camp easily in a beautiful spot right across the forest road from all those patches of wild onions. After snacks and a few cool ones there was enough time to go back foraging and we decided that a little further up the hill from where we had stopped picking might be very good.

If I was a preaching man perhaps I could say, "I have been to the top of the mountain and I have seen The Glory." Or maybe, "God was looking down and smiling on us that day."

Others might insist that I must of sold my soul to the devil because of what we were about to stumble upon.

Hiking past where we had quit earlier I crested a little mound in the hill belly well below a peak. If you'd seen me right at that instant you could be one of the chosen few who has witnessed me nonplussed. I mean, dumbfounded. Speechless.

Nah, that's not the right way to describe it. (Heck, I wake myself up in the morning by talking). But anyway, I was struck hard by such a sight.

What happened was I started to spot some morels. A few here, some more here, some more over there, more here, some up there, there, there, there and there. Damn. I felt like my mother was comforting me. "There, there now Patrick. It's going to be all right."

Indeed.

I actually had to sit down and take stock of this situation. Connie was too far down across the hill to see or even hear me. I began to count the mushrooms I could see as a way to organize stuff--accomplish some simple task in order that the greater job at hand might not seem so daunting. When I rounded two hundred and was heading toward three I called out for her.

She got up to where I was and we both gawked. Ever honestly gawked? It makes your mouth form into gaping-like hole and your eyebrows sort of lift up a little and thrust out too, and is not a very good look. Neither of us had ever seen so many good-sized-in-perfect-shape morels. You can talk about "carpets of mushrooms" and "forest roads paved with them" (hmm, matter of fact we did find chanterelles just like that in the Queen Charlottes) but these were "burns" and, to me, the best of the best.

This was morel heaven, the summum bonum of fungal heavens and we got down and picked Kama Sutra style. (Minors may leave this column for a few sentences now).

What I mean is we postured ourselves every different way just to explore every sensuous sentient detail of this morel majesty. On my back with arms extended beyond my head I "back-picked" myself. Lying on my side propped up by an elbow I picked with Roman forum form.

It probably would have been dificult for others to witness but for those who do like to watch this should have been videoed, and perhaps us arrested.

This time we brought a bunch of brown bags, two plastic buckets and a day pack. We filled a many as we could carry and my reveling only increased as I started to think of making dinner.

I had brought a wire basket to grill morels and as soon as our campfire was in coals we tossed some of the medium sized mushrooms in a bowl with melted butter and olive oil, salt and pepper, and started to toast them over some Black oak. Jeez these are good this way.

A delightfully wise, yet young but not shy, Pinot soothed us while we popped crunchy, buttery and salty burn beauties and we began to plan tomorrow's trip home.

One of the first things we did at Connie's house was to weigh our booty. Is that right? Or is it bounty? Anyhow, some scaling and taring and stuff like that was done by her and the result was numbing even to me. One hundred and twenty two pounds we brought off that mountain from an area no bigger than 200 yards by 150 yards, in no more than 7 hours of work. Many were almost dried on the stem so the actual number of individual morels was way high.

Some might complain that we shoulda, coulda left some, etc. yackety yack. Well, it was Sunday and hot and no one was likely to get up that mountain soon enough to find good ones. And besides, they were worth ten dollars a pound to Connie and that is what she gave me for my half. Yikes, I sold them and the complaint department is now open for business.

Seriously, if you would like to initiate a dialogue (or just plain yell and scream at me) concerning your concerns over this little fun mushroom hunting trip which turned into a commercial venture please write a letter to our editor and I will gladly reply. Or, you may not want me too.

This is the part of the column where I usually tie the disparate elements into a nicely tight and easily understood article and begin the recipe section. What if we simply get into that section without tying too much of the above together? I mean, do you really want a recipe for Morels and Raven Hams? How about Gopher Pieces Stuffed Morels?

I will tell you again that the very best way to prepare morels is in a basket like we did over that hardwood fire, served with a Pinot, after a hard day of picking a big pile of those puppies.

There is a recipe that I made recently and would like to share with those still reading the column. If anyone you know has quit it already you can go get them and let them see that there really is a recipe in the cooking column.

My mom told me recently that food at my house is too complicated for her palate. So she sends me recipes in the mail for food she wants me to prepare when she comes over. Only Mom could do that to me.

What follows is my adaptation of a dish she suggested. Hers was plain, mine is not. Don't tell her anything about this, please.

Jarlsberg BLT (Cheese, Boletes, Lettuce and Tomato)

Recipe By: Patrick
Serving Size: 4
Preparation Time: 0:30

Preperation:

  1. Spray oil on non-stick pan.
  2. Place some of the shredded cheese in the shape of a piece of bacon in pan. fill pan with similar shapes and heat over medium-high until crisp--about 3 minutes. place on paper towels and blot. wipe down pan with paper towels between batches.
  3. Assemble sandwiches. strips can be made beforehand and refrigerated, then warmed in a 300 degree oven, cooled on wire rack and used.
  4. NOTES: any size bolete slices will do as long as you have enough. I bet that morels would be good this way too. Heck any good edible would be, but don't tell my mother.