Copyright 1995, all rights reserved.
Epic journeys may begin with a single step; mine starts with a dusty '85 Toyota station wagon crammed with camping gear: tent, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, and all the attendant clutter necessary for cold nights in the woods. A Coleman stove and a gallon of white gas teeter behind the driver's seat; a collection of alcoholic beverages only slightly less volatile than the gas squats behind the passenger seat. A formidable pair of ice chests looms in the back. One is filled with block ice and food, the other stands cavernously empty.
And then there's the special equipment: a long stick wrapped with flourescent tape. Two large wicker baskets, a pair of scissors tied to the one handle. A hooked knife with a brush on its handle, a box of gallon ZipLoc bags, a roll of paper towels, a bright orange whistle, and a liquid-filled compass. An altimeter. And in the glove compartment, which sits ready to dump its contents to the floor at the touch of a button, a cartographic cornucopia: AAA regional maps, USGS 7.5 minute topo maps, USFS service road maps, DeLorme sectional maps, and--just in case we need more routes--a bicycle trails map.
My accomplice for this excursion is my wife, Lynn, who squeezes into the passenger seat while I hunker down behind the wheel and fend off a bag of groceries determined to fall onto my neck. We're off to the Sierra mountains to look for fungi. We are obsessed with the thought of the cavernous ice chest in back and how it would look filled with morels.
For the benefit of the fungally disinclined, the morel is a mushroom. A wild mushroom. A mushroom revered by cooks and diners from the backwoods of Michigan to the five-star restaurants of Paris. At first glance, a morel isn't much to look at--a slender white stem topped with a shriveled and pitted cap that looks a little like someone's thumb left in the water for far too long. On closer inspection, through eyes of love and fungal lust, the morel takes on a contorted beauty. The cap, perched like an elongated golf ball on a white tee, is honeycombed with delicately laced ridges and deep pits. The ivory stem curves gracefully to join the base of the cap, and if you look closely you may see granules sprinkled like sugar along the length of the stem. Slice the morel in two from tip to base, and it falls into neat halves, revealing its smooth and hollow interior.
A sliced morel is an invitation to the frying pan. Morels can take a star turn in pasta sauces, soups, and risottos, or they can perch as a side dish next to trout. They are tucked into meat pies, served up with fiddlehead ferns, and spooned over spare ribs. They can be stuffed and baked, saut*ed and spread, chopped and stewed.
Bite into a cooked morel, and you feel a texture that is yielding with a firm crunch at the end. The taste is sweet, nutty, and very hard to describe to those who are innocent of morels. Because the taste is subtle, it's possible to overwhelm it with stronger flavors, which is why morels have an affinity for shallots instead of onions, and for cream sauce, which amplifies and spreads their flavor.
Morels come in a confusing variety of shapes and sizes, enough to keep mycologists in constant turmoil about what constitutes a species in the world of morels. It's simplest to think of them in three main groups: Morchella esculenta, the yellow morels that predominate in the midwestern U. S.; Morchella deliciosa, the infrequent white morels; and Morchella elata, the black morels found regularly in the mountain west. Although morel connoisseurs may quibble about differences in taste (some claim the black morel has a more robust taste, others claim the yellow morel is deliciously smooth), all are delectable.
Each group of morels varies widely in appearance, one of the reasons it's often hard to define boundaries between species. Black morels, for example, come burnished with overtones of red, green, gold, and brown. Their stems may be whipped cream white or eggnog tan, their interiors matching the color of the stems. They range in size from smaller than the tip of your little finger to larger than your head, but most are commonly the size of an egg. Whether that egg is large or small depends on your luck.
Our luck will, of course, be good. In an optimistic haze, Lynn and I goad the station wagon through the warm May air south of Sacramento. In the Sierra foothills, just past the town of Sonora, we start a steep climb up a heavily forested two-lane highway. It begins to rain. As our climb continues, the rain turns to large wet flakes of snow that stick to the windshield wipers. A good omen--I hope. Morels seem to like inclement weather. It does mean, though, that we're going to be setting up camp in the snow.
At twilight, we turn off the highway and drop into the valley to find our campground. In the lower elevation, the snow turns back into a cold and drizzling rain. Bright yellow Floccularia albolanaripes dot the forest floor, a welcome sight; if it's humid enough for this colorful mushroom, it's humid enough for morels. I flash a loopy grin at Lynn, wiggle my eyebrows, and hum a hyperactive version of the William Tell overture.
William Tell dies on my lips when we pull into camp: the campsites are completely full. Mid-May is much too early for a crush of summer campers--are these people all here to compete for our morels?
Closer inspection brings relief--most of the campers don't look disreputable enough to be mushroom hunters. They drive expensive campers and pickup trucks loaded with fishing tackle; tomorrow is the opening day of fishing season. The only truly scruffy campers are our friends from the Mycological Society of San Francisco, who have crammed two small campsites with a motley collection of backpacking tents, beat-up panel vans, and rainflies. We add our tent to the collection, work hard to extricate the alcohol from behind the passenger's seat, and unfold two chairs to go sit by the campfire.
If you pick a morel and hold it up to a strong beam of sunlight, the sudden heat may trigger a golden puff of spores. That puff of spores is the sole reason for the morel's existence. The morel is a reproductive structure, a fruiting body produced to propogate the species. And its stem is attached to an organism that is invisible to the naked eye: the mycelium.
A morel's mycelium is a web of microscopically fine tendrils that weave themselves through a hospitable substrate: soil, decaying forest detritus, burnt pine needles--whatever sates its hunger for dead and decomposable organic material. The mycelium is born of spores alighting on that hospitable environment. It can live for years, and its life, like that of many humans, centers around the essentials: growing, absorbing nutrients, soaking up fluids, and seeking sex.
Although it may be hard to hold fungus and sex together within the same thought, it's a fact that mycelia come in two sexes: A and B for lack of better terms. Professional mycologists equipped with electron microscopes and DNA analysis have no idea how to tell sex A from sex B, so it's fortunate that the mycelia have no such problem. When a mycelium of sex A encounters a mycelium of sex B, they intertwine and continue to grow through the substrate. The resultant mycelium is more vital and--most important--now capable of fruiting mushrooms. But only if the conditions are right.
As any mushroom cultivator can tell you, growing mated mycelia is relatively easy. It's a simple (well, perhaps not so simple) matter of getting mushroom spores to germinate and grow into a mycelium on an appropriate substrate--composted straw, horse manure, mulched wood, whatever the mycelium likes. The tricky part is convincing the mycelium that it's time to fruit mushrooms.
To grow the button mushrooms you buy at the corner market, cultivators wait for their composted substrate to become completely enveloped with mycelium. They then cover it with a sterile layer of soil and drop the temperature by about ten degrees Fahrenheit. Mycelia of other species have different requirements. Some require a rise or drop in humidity before they'll fruit, others require an invasion of beneficial bacteria. Mushroom cultivators jealously catalog these fruiting secrets and use them to bring mushrooms to market in new varieties and increased quantities.
Morels, ever the contrary fungus, stubbornly guard the secrets of their fruiting. Although many mushroom growers have pried into their private lives, morels have successfully eluded large-scale commercial cultivation. This is why the morels you buy in gourmet food stores are probably picked in the wild by commercial morel pickers, not grown in a mushroom farm.
These facts we do know about morel fruiting: Morels like the spring following a cold snowy winter. They like the soil of burnt forests, they like soil around dying elm trees. They grow along washed-out river banks, they grow in bright sunny areas, they grow in sheltered shady areas. They grow wherever they want. Just when you think you've got it pegged that you'll find morels in burnt forests in the snowy Sierras, morels pop up in the landscaping mulch surrounding a computer company in sunny Palo Alto.
Lynn and I blink in the bright sunlight coming through the tent door. The drizzle has stopped. We wiggle out of our sleeping bags and into sweatshirts, long johns, blue jeans, coats, and gloves, then emerge to meet the morning chill and the rest of the morel hunters.
Many of the old hands are here: Laurie Gallagher, a holistic houseboat dweller from Sausalito who sneaks occasional handrolled cigarettes; Mike Callahan, from Tahoe City, with accompanying labrador. Chester Laskowski, bearded, balding, with a greying ponytail, accompanying a trio of Russians in a van labeled "European Hardwood Floors." Rose Flaherty, who has already rounded up Sierra puffballs from the parking lot and is cooking them with eggs for breakfast. Jim Pollack with his visibly pregnant wife, Lourdes. Don Simoni. Yutaka Wada. And a gaggle of novice morel hunters, up here to try their luck for the first time.
The foray leader is Norm Andresen, a burly and red-bearded tool maker from Oakland. Norm has a keen and rapacious eye for morels, a surprising grace and speed, and a set of topo maps tucked into his bib overalls. He unfolds the maps and stretches them out on a picnic table so we can look over Rose Creek burn, the foray area for the day. In last summer's heat, the drought-weakened forest at Rose Creek burst into flames, leaving valleys of scorched tree trunks and fallen logs. The deep snows of winter have now retreated, exposing moist and fire-blackened soil to the warmth of spring sunshine. Perfect conditions for morels. Still, we need assurance.
"So, Norm, how do you think we'll do?" I ask.
Norm takes a thoughtful pull at his beard. "Well, I don't know. The conditions look good, but you never know. We could do all right, though, if we keep a sharp eye out." This is Norm's standard spiel, an answer he'd give even if he had morels growing from his forehead. When it comes to mushrooms, it's never wise to commit yourself--they may be listening.
After breakfast cleanup, we congregate in the parking lot, twenty-odd people ready for morels. "Okay," says Norm, "I think we should carpool if possible." He looks straight into the eyes of a middle-aged couple with an old and low-slung Chrysler Imperial, a car begging to be gutted by the rocky logging roads ahead. They smile. "And you want to keep an eye where you're going so you can find your way back out in case you get lost."
Norm is referring to the maze of logging roads put in place by the Forest Service. With names like 4N01 and 3P37, they crisscross the forest, ride ridges, plunge down valleys, and open the forest so logging trucks can haul back the fallen carcasses of pines and firs. Forest service maps show and label these roads, but new roads appear frequently, and old roads fall into disrepair or are completely blocked by massive logging cranes. Road signs are few, far between, and often shot to pieces or gnawed on by porcupines. These roads are not for people with low-slung cars or a weak sense of direction.
Undaunted, the Chrysler Imperial couple opts out of carpooling. "We have our lunch packed in the trunk," they explain, "and we'd rather not have to move it." Norm rolls his eyes, hops into his dingy white van with his stepson Zach, and rolls off in a blinding cloud of red dust. Lynn, Laurie, and I immediately jump on his tail, and the rest of the caravan--six strong--noses in behind.
When Norm leads a foray, it's important to suck up to his tailpipe and never let go. This is made difficult by the fact that Norm believes all roads permit speeds above 25 miles per hour--no matter how bumpy, curved, or rutted--and by the fact that the dust cloud kicked up by Norm's van assumes biblical proportions. No matter. He who hesitates is lost, which is made clear when the Chrysler Imperial behind us slows down, falls back, and eventually disappears along with the rest of the caravan.
When Norm finally gets a glimpse back through an unexpected gap in his dust cloud, he notices the missing cars. We stop to wait. After half an hour, the caravan arrives minus the Chrysler Imperial. A rock in the road has gashed its gas tank open. The Imperial couple has reluctantly taken their lunch out of the trunk and caught a ride with a high-bottomed Jeep, abandoning their car until the return that evening. There is mumbling about driving a belly-dragger on the logging roads in the first place, but murmurs of approval that the couple ditched their disabled car to hunt for morels. Fungal obsession is a respected vice in this group.
Seated from left to right: Norm Andresen, Yutaka Wada, Mike Boom, Lynn Morton, Lorrie Gallagher, Chester Laskowski. Standing: Don Simoni. Photo copyright 1995 by Phyllis Christopher, San Francisco.
Some mushrooms are dependable in their habitats; they hang around the same old haunts, and are easy marks for beginners. You may know that yellow chanterelles like to grow under coastal live oak. If you find a nice patch of them, you can return in similar conditions and find chanterelles there again, year after year. If you once find a troop of king boletes beneath a Bishop pine, you know to look there again in the next season when the fall rains return.
Morels, however, do not like stable habitats. They thrive on chaos--forests burnt to the ground, washed-over river banks, dirt roads plowed through logged forests, an old apple orchard left to run wild. The French reported huge morel fruitings at the end of World War I; mushrooms sprouted in spring from the bottoms of bomb craters, where pickers had to beware of live rounds.
To make matters more difficult, morels do not often repeat their fruitings; it never pays to wax nostalgic about favorite morel spots. If you find morels in great numbers one spring, you can return to the same spot in later years, at the same time of year and in the same conditions, and find no trace of morels. As a rule of thumb, a disturbed area may produce tremendous numbers of morels the first year after the disturbance, moderate amounts the year following, and few to no morels thereafter.
Successful morelers, then, are keenly aware of the morel's love of chaos. They become necrophiles of the alpine forest, watching news of forest fires and logging operations with fevered interest. They mark maps with colored pencils, make frequent calls to the Forest Service, and swap gossip about fresh sylvan catastrophes. They spin fantasies of future harvests and wait impatiently for the following spring.
In spring, morelers pore over their maps and think about timing--an element every bit as important as location when hunting morels. If you ascend the mountains too early, the ground is covered with snow. If you show up too late, the sun has evaporated all soil moisture, leaving dust, ash, and (for the truly unfortunate) withered and wormy morels to remind you of your tardiness. To hit the proper time, morelers here in California make frequent spring scouting trips to the Sierras and mercilessly milk the fungal phone network for rumors of fruiting.
Morelers lucky enough to get to the right area at the right time still have no guarantee of mushrooms in the basket, even if morels are known to be there. They must first deduce the current fruiting conditions. As one moreler puts it, "You gotta figure out the program for the day," a program that changes from day to day, week to week. One week, morels perch high and dry in bare dirt, where they seek warmth and avoid excessive moisture. They appear only on south-facing slopes in altitudes from 3500 to 4000 feet. The next week, morels in the same altitude like east-facing slopes along small stream banks. They hide in the shade of fallen logs and small burnt manzanita bushes, shunning the sun and seeking higher humidity. And the week following, morels grow from 4000 to 4500 feet only in stands of burnt sapling incense cedars--for no discernible reason whatsoever.
It is, therefore, impossible to predict the habitat for morels when you first arrive on a foray. It's a matter of finding the first morels through luck and a raptorial eye, and then crafting a theory for the day's habitat. You try to find new areas with the same conditions, and then revise your theory to fit the absence or presence of morels. With luck, you'll zero in on the program by the end of the day and fill your basket. But, of course, you must first to be able to see morels.
What we've seen most of today is the plume of dust from Norm's rear wheels. He finally pulls over to the side of the road, and the caravan follows suit, a ragged line of cars with goggle-eyed passengers emerging from the settling dust.
We are looking at a war zone. Last year's fire passed victoriously through the valley before us, leaving a forest of blackened spars. The ground is carpeted with burnt pine cones, singed needles, stumps, fallen logs, and the sooted remains of junipers and manzanitas. Large sinkholes pock the hillside where the fire burnt slowly underground, consuming complete root systems. A sour whiff of smoke prevails, as if the fire is still smoldering far beneath our feet. To our right, looming in the middle of a stand of skinny burnt firs, is a single massive oak, its gnarled and empty branches reaching out in black agony.
Somber surroundings, but not for long. Norm strolls down the slope, followed by a ragged line of people carrying baskets, cardboard boxes with twine handles, and paper shopping bags. The sun is bright on our faces, a jarring sight for pallid mushroom hunters used to tramping dark forests. We keep our faces to the ground, the better to see the small black eruptions that we anticipate so keenly.
Norm, of course, finds the first morels. "You might want to look around here," he calls to a group of beginning morelers. He points his walking stick at a small hump of pine needles and flicks them off to reveal a clump of seven beautiful black morels. The beginners fall to their knees and begin picking; the rest of us circle in earnest, looking for more mounds of needles.
When I first started hunting morels, I was amazed at how difficult it was to see the little devils, even when they were literally at my feet. They look like burnt pine cones; they look like the burnt stubs of saplings; they look like part of the carpet of soil and burnt needles. When the eye takes in the forest floor, any morels present are merely one small pattern in the midst of an optic maelstrom. To be successful, you must keep the image of a morel firmly implanted in the mind's eye, and you must match everything you see against that image. It doesn't hurt to hold a picked morel up to your face from time to time just to remember what it looks like.
This, then, is the challenge of finding morels: to keep your eyes open, your senses keen. To let thought and instinct come together in sharp focus; to extend perception beyond the visible world to deeper and more profound patterns. And, of course, to find supper for tonight.
The beginners around Norm are starting to perceive that finding morels isn't easy. The woman from the Imperial--DeeDee-- stands next to the stump of a burnt cedar and wails, "I can't find anything! You guys are picking them all!" Norm swoops in, kneels at her side, and plucks three large morels growing next to her left foot. "You don't want these?" he asks politely.
Norm has a deceptively easy way with morels. He knows just where to look--in the lee of fallen logs, in stump holes, in beds of pine needles, in small thickets of burnt incense cedar saplings--and he uses his walking stick to pry and pick at promising humps of ground. He's customized his stick: it's wrapped with flourescent tape so he won't leave it behind; it's tipped with prongs for pulling and poking. "And," claims Norm with a grin, "it's useful for pounding on people who try to pick morels in front of me."
When Norm finds morels, he drops to his knees as if in church, plucks, snips the dirt clumps from their bases with a pair of scissors tied to his basket, and drops the trimmed morels into the basket's maw. While he picks, his eyes scan the horizon for more morels; a low viewpoint often puts them in profile. If he sees a single morel while walking, he dips without breaking his stride, plucks the morel, pinches off the base with his thumbnail, and throws it into his basket.
Norm is unfailingly polite, even when he picks morels at your feet. And so are the rest of the hunters. "Nice patch! Hope you enjoy picking them." "You saw it first, go ahead." It soon becomes apparent, however, that there aren't that many morels. If you shy away from every successful moreler, you end up with an empty basket.
The foray quickly takes on aspects of an Easter egg hunt. As morelers stroll through the forest, they keep a sharp eye out for two things: morels, and other people finding morels. If you move toward someone intently picking, you're likely to share in the bonanza. And if you follow Norm around, you're likely to be in the midst of bonanzas, which is why Norm has become such a master of swift and discreet picking.
The group vigilance has its drawbacks when it's your good fortune being shared. Kneel before an abundance of morels, and a host of pickers soon flocks in sporting hearty smiles and quick knives. So Lynn and I develop a strategy: as we walk, we whistle. Whenever I come upon a healthy patch of morels, I include a discreet catcall. Lynn works her way in my direction with deceptive nonchalance, then helps me clear out the patch before anyone else notices our frenzied activity. An effective strategy, but not for long. Others figure it out, and soon it's impossible to hum without attracting a crowd.
Group vigilance creates another unexpected difficulty: it's hard to take a pee. DeeDee find this out when she moves behind a clump of burnt shrubbery, then squats. Other morelers, seeing her low profile, move in to find out what she's picking.
"Whatcha hiding back there, DeeDee? Are you kneeling because you got religion?"
"Go away! I'm taking a pee."
"Sure you are."
When the group rounds the corner, DeeDee is caught with her pants down literally and figuratively: next to her nearly empty paper bag is a large cluster of unpicked morels.
"The U.S. Forest Service exists for three main purposes," claims a friend of mine, "selling trees, selling trees, and selling trees." It's true that the Forest Service has close ties to the logging industry, a fact especially apparent in national forest burn areas where lumber companies come for salvage logging. Many trees that die in the fire are only singed on the outside, their charred bark covering thousands and thousands of board feet of potential lumber. The loggers waste no time in claiming them, felling blackened firs and pines, trimming off their branches, and hauling the logs to waiting lumber trucks. The result is even more shattering than the fire: slash piles of discarded limbs, drag marks up hills to waiting cranes, and logging roads cut everywhere, raw wounds in the earth.
Morels, of course, just see this as more chaos and thrive as a result. They like the humid conditions around the slash piles, the shade that protects them from the spring sun. They like the Caterpillar-trampled soil, and they like the cut banks of the logging roads. Logging a burned area can often extend significant morel fruiting for another season.
The Forest Service doesn't quite know what to make of the people who flock to these ravaged areas for fungi, not trees. Burn areas are usually off limits to the general public, so pickers must get a permit from the local ranger station to enter. When the Mycological Society first inquired about picking morels in the Ruby Creek burn area, the district ranger seriously considered requiring everyone to wear hard hats until Norm pointed out that we don't actually do anything to the trees, we just pick fungi growing around their carcasses. The ranger settled on charging each picker $10 for a season permit.
Not all districts are so generous. Some see mushrooms as a cash resource, charge pickers by the pound, and maintain an elaborate morel tagging scheme. Others sell morel-picking rights for a burn area to a commercial picking operation and deny access to recreational pickers. This isn't a popular policy with mycological societies.
Conservation is not at the heart of Forest Service morel regulations, even though it's occasionally given as a reason. The fact is that picking morels has little to no effect on the environment--especially in light of the devastation that usually surrounds prime morel habitats. Pick a morel, and you leave behind a mycelium that may fruit more morels, often within a week's time. Carry a basket of morels around the forest, and your picked morels shed spores over fertile new ground.
The problem, at least in the minds of morelers, is where you can legally carry that basket. Are you in a restricted forest service burn area now, or just a singed area that's open to the public? Does this district require a permit, or can you pick for free? Where do you buy permits--in the next county, or from the ranger bearing down on you as you pick? How many mushrooms can you pick without a permit, and is the amount measured in pounds, ounces, gallons, or quarts? Have you slipped over the Forest Service boundary onto private lumber company land, and where does the lumber company stand on morel picking?
This uncertainty often gives the act of morel picking a furtive air. Morelers try to park where their cars in unobtrusive spots, and they keep a closed mouth about their activities. Many old-timers, used to picking anywhere without hassle, refuse to buy permits at all. They skulk from valley to valley, baskets carefully hidden in the clutter of their back seats, eyes peeled in equal portions for new morel habitats and prowling ranger trucks.
It's mid-afternoon, and our morel habitat has been consistent: west-facing slopes, standing burnt firs, and deep pine duff where we've found moderate numbers of morels. This is good picking, especially in light of forays past where morels declined to make an appearance in any numbers exceeding single digits. But I have a sneaking suspicion, founded on baseless optimism, that monstrous fruitings are hiding in a habitat yet to be explored.
It's Laurie who makes the breakthrough. She wanders away from the horde combing through the firs, and sits on a fallen log--the edge of a large jumble of burnt logs cut last year by a logging crew, now waiting to be dragged up the slope by a large and predatory crane. She looks down along the side of the log, smiles, and calls in a very low voice: "Lynn. Mike. Come here."
Lynn and I waste no time. As we approach, I catch a glimpse of a honeycomb pattern between two logs, and immediately straddle one of them to get a closer look. There beneath my hanging left foot is a cluster of eight plump morels. Thirty degrees to the right is an equally plump cluster. Thirty degrees further, another large cluster. Within a radius of three feet I can count approximately a hundred cool black morels, hiding in the shade of the slash. "Jesus Christ!" I mutter in a fervor that almost approaches religion. "Jesus Christ!"
The problem with picking morels from a slash pile is that they hide so well. They grow in dark shadows, sprouting alongside logs, hiding under fans of needled branches. And this particular slope is more than slash--it is a field of fallen trees thrown akimbo, one upon another, the soil often many feet below. To reach morels, I clamber through tangles of blackened wood. I wedge my basket in the fork of a convenient branch, crawl upon a log, stretch out in sooty embrace, and probe deep to pluck clusters of morels. When I come back up, I trim and drop my morels into the basket with care--nudge it the wrong way, and the day's labor bounces merrily into the abyss.
Foray rules still apply: no success goes unnoticed. Our fellow foragers soon join us in our quiet labors, dipping and bobbing within a jumble of black, occasionally hooting in delight. By the end of the afternoon, we have filled our baskets. We troop back to our cars, a ragtag stream of sunburnt backs and necks, soot- and sweat-streaked faces, toothy white smiles. It's time to think about dinner.
On our return to camp, we pass through ranks of forlorn fishermen. "Catch any?" I ask. The universal reply: "Nope." One fisherman claims that somebody at the other end of camp did catch a fish and is cooking it right now. I smile, smack my lips, and head down to the icy-cold river to sluice off the day's grime.
By the time I return, people are mixing gin and tonics, opening beers, and fiddling with their Coleman stoves--the mushroom hunters' gastronomical friend. Lynn has plans for smoked chicken, morels, and cream sauce over pasta, so I pull a bottle of white wine out of the ice chest and industriously cut up morels while Lynn dices shallots. At the next table, Laurie and Rose are busy stuffing large morels with wild rice and bacon, preparing them for Norm's Coleman oven. Don Simoni makes a salad with pieces of raw coral mushroom, and Yutaka Wada passes around hors d'oeuvres: sauteed boletes, found in the forest just across the road.
Dinner is a languorous affair that stretches from early evening to nightfall across a potpourri of dishes. Conversation drifts from yet another theory about morel habitats to the use of castrati in Italian opera to a history of the machine gun. We relegate the dirty dishes to a pile for the light of morning, and migrate to the fire pit, where Norm tends a blaze built from dead wood pulled out of this afternoon's slash piles. It's time for dessert: morels brushed with olive oil and garlic pepper, roasted on sticks over the fire.
Lynn and I have been waiting for just this moment. Two days ago we discovered the ultimate yuppie morel stick--a telescoping metal rod with a two-tined tip and a rotating wooden handle. It fits in your pocket. With a great flourish, we pull out our sticks, extend them, skewer a pair of morels, and start roasting. But Norm is not impressed. "Just wait. Those morels will fall into the fire as soon as they're roasted and go limp." And he's right. Slick with oil, my morel soon loses its starch in the heat and slides down the smooth tines directly into the flames. With an evil grin, Norm reaches behind his chair and pulls out his special morel stick, hand-crafted spring steel, made in his tool shop. The end is a helix. He casually screws on a morel, starts roasting, and ascends with the drifting sparks to the pantheon of fungal gods.
After a full day of mushroom hunting, it's almost guaranteed that as you fall asleep you will dream of morels. Rub your eyes hard, and you'll see morels glimmering on the backside of your eyelids. Your brain, working hard all day long to draw forth the image of a morel from a flood of incoming visual data, is hungry for the sight of morels. Presented with the random swirlings of a rubbed eyelid or impending sleep, it happily proclaims morels, and the next morning you're left wondering why everyone on the foray had the same dream.
Not all morel hunters are enticed (or plagued) solely by dancing morels as they fall asleep. A few novices may toss and turn in their sleeping bag, waiting for the first signs of mushroom poisoning. Eating wild mushrooms seems like a good idea when everyone is tucking them away with abandon, but years of admonitions and horror stories about death by mushrooms make their mark. Is it possible that the foray leader made a mistake and we're all going to die in writhing agony?
Possible. But highly improbable--about as likely as mistaking a head of lettuce for a bunch of broccoli in a produce store. The morel's distinctive honeycomb head and hollow interior make it next to impossible to mistake for the deadly-poisonous Amanitas, which stretch a cap and graceful white gills over a ringed and slender white stalk--the fairy-tale image of a mushroom. And deadly Amanitas rarely--if ever--share the same habitat with morels, at least here in California.
A closer bet for poisoning is the gyromitra, sometimes called a lorchel or a beefsteak morel in the midwest. The gyromitra often fruits in morel habitats, and shares many similarities with the morel: it has a white stalk, a convoluted head with no gills, is hollow, and can be close in size. The differences, however, are distinctive. Gyromitras have rusty brown heads, a color not found in the panoply of morel colors. The heads are lobed like a brain, not honeycombed, and they hang over the side of the stalk instead of merging smoothly into it. Mistaking a gyromitra for a morel is difficult, and takes a stubborn and tenacious ignorance.
Eating a gyromitra on purpose is another matter. Although the U.S. and Europe have numerous recorded deaths of gyromitra poisoning, many people eat gyromitras with impunity and relish their flavor. That's because the poisonous element in a gyromitra is gyromitrin, a highly toxic and possibly carcinogenic compound, but one that evaporates easily. Dehydrate a gyromitra or cook it in an open pan, and the gyromitrin escapes into the air, leaving behind a safe mushroom. (Just be careful not to breath in the poisonous vapors during cooking.) Many people are convinced, however, that cooking doesn't remove all the gyromitrin, and that carcinogenic effects can accumulate over time.
Do morels have any toxic side effects? None recorded over centuries of gastronomic history. You can get indigestion, though, if you eat raw morels because their uncooked fibers are difficult for your stomach to absorb. And, of course, you shouldn't eat moldy or spoiled morels. To preserve morels and avoid spoilage, you can saut* and freeze them. Or you can dehydrate them until they're crispy dry. Dehydrated morels can last for years and--properly rehydrated--taste as if they were picked yesterday.
It's Sunday morning, and with fond thoughts of yesterday's morels, the caravan rolls down the road. Today, however, seems destined for disarray. The road splits often, and Norm charges ahead at his usual speed. At one intersection, Lynn and I head off on what I believe is an alternate route to the day's foraging, and we end up losing the rest of the group. That's okay. We find a very productive spot of our own, and briefly enjoy picking morels in the casual manner of two people whose baskets are destined for the same dehydrator. Minutes later the lost foray finds us, and morelers swarm from their cars to join our success.
In our drive to the next spot, Lynn and I tuck tightly behind Norm, and bounce again through the maze of Forest Service roads. Behind us, Don Simoni loses heart, falls behind, and fades from sight. Without a map, he leads the rest of the caravan up to a desolate lake while we proceed down to a burnt creek bed. Norm squeals to a halt and, noticing the caravan has been reduced to two cars, says, "That's all right. They know their way out--I think."
It's another sunny day, and the burn begins to take on its own peculiar beauty. A host of dead firs stand stark and black against the deep blue of a high-altitude sky. The fire has scoured the ground of shrubs and low-lying plants; in their place is the spring's first growth of tender green grass, ankle high, which we walk through as if in a park. The spring wildflowers are out in abundance: a patchwork quilt of blue lupine, purple and gold shooting stars, and crimson Indian paintbrushes. Dotted throughout are five-spots--each small white petal tipped in indigo.
Lynn decides it's time to take a nap in the sun, so Norm, his step-son Zach, and I start down the creek, baskets in hand. We've all got enough morels to keep us happy, so civilization be damned, and every man for himself. Norm feints to his left to draw me, then leaps to the right to scoop up a cluster of morels. I wait for Norm and Zach to precede me by ten yards, then double back to the troop of morels waiting patiently in the shade of a burnt sugar pine. Zach's strategy is speed: he leaps in front of each of us whenever we kneel, yelling "Ha!" as he plucks morels from beneath us. We laugh, and the pace picks up.
Three abreast now, we spread wide across the creek bed, eyes working left and right to scour the forest floor and simultaneously survey our companions. I work far to the left, then see a miraculous patch of seventy to eighty golden morels on the other side of a huge fallen log. No one's looking. I dive over the log, flatten myself out of sight, and start picking in a blur, cackling uncontrollably. Ten seconds later, Norm and Zach round each side of the log and immediately start picking my morels, the father-son tag team from hell. In my haste to pick the survivors, my shoulder clips my basket, and I watch it teeter precariously on top of the log. It topples just before I can reach it, and the three of us watch a small horde of morels tumble and bounce their way down the hill to freedom. I roll over on my back and laugh out loud.