My excitement begins to build as early as March, when the first of the warm days begin turning the snow to corn and I start craving foraged produce and all the nutrients it offers a winter-worn body. Then, when the snow line begins creeping up the valley towards the peaks of the surrounding hills, my excitement crescendos into an allegro composition of heartbeat, adrenalin, desire and hunger and I know I will be finding some mushrooms soon. I start to pay more attention to the exposed terra firma on the trailside as my dog, Medea, and I tromp about in the forest. We take ever increasing diversions off the main trail into the somewhat sparse, mixed aspen and fir mountainsides looking for the signs that signal the beginning of ‘shroom season. These signs are as subtle and as very flavor of the morel; the fern fronds pushing through the leaves on the forest floor, and the bright green new leaves on the Aspens. When I see these things, coupled with warmer overnight temperatures and a nice spring rain, I know it’s time.
This year’s first harvest came on May 3, the earliest I can remember. On a typical year, I mark my morel hunting by my wedding anniversary, June 11, and try to make sure that we have a few on that day to celebrate. Morel season lasts for about ten days in any given perfect habitat, but chasing them up the mountainside can mean up to a month of harvesting if the conditions are right. I usually start to find mine in late May and continue looking long after I know they’re gone in late June.
I can spend hours on the hunt. When I’m in the moment, my focus is so great and I am moving so delicately with the forest that time evaporates and the forest inhabitants become themselves, aware that I am hunting flora, not flesh. I become so acutely aware of my eyes that I can feel my pupils dilate as I attempt to distinguish the subtle difference between a pinecone, a dirt clod or mushroom. I have a theory when hunting mushrooms that the first mushroom is the most elusive. Once you learn to see the mushrooms, they begin to appear much more easily. I have literally walked right past whole patches of mushrooms, but didn’t see them until I retrained my eyes and then saw them on the way back to the car. Each trip into the woods to forage requires eyeball recalibration, and the morel’s life choice is one of camouflage, making it one of the more difficult finds in the mushroom world.
I would be doing a serious disservice if I didn’t provide some disclaimers and give some helpful advice for you aspiring mycophiles. First of all, many mushrooms are poisonous. Second of all, most edible mushrooms have a “look alike” mushroom that is toxic, so special care has to be taken when harvesting mushrooms to make sure the forager knows exactly what is coming home in the basket. In the case of the morel, there are two common “look alikes,” one that is mildly toxic to some people (and so yummy to others), called a verpa, and a deadly one called a conifer false morel. Once the eye is trained, these become easy to identify, but this requires skill and knowledge, and with life-threatening discomfort as the alternative, one needs to be sure.
The single most common question I encounter after a day of successful foraging is, “Where did you find them?” This is the unanswerable question, and will result in a whitewashed story of vagueness bordering on insulting. My canned answer is, “on the mountain.” To most people this means the Ski Area, but that is my plan. Every hill around us is a mountain, and I don’t specify. Prized foraging spots are not too common, especially in the morel world. I have only three spots where I can count on finding morels, and only then if I can get to these spots in the window of the morel’s short and picky fruiting lifespan. Your best bet for becoming a ‘shroomer is to befriend a knowledged mycophile, and be there on the right day, in the right season, and hope you get to come along on the hunt!
The ultimate in decadence
10 morels, cut in half, rinsed and patted dry
¼ c parmesan cheese
½ c flour
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped
1 t ground thyme
1 T ground black pepper
One egg combined with 1 T milk, buttermilk or cream
Combine dry ingredients in a small bowl. Dip morels in the egg wash one at a time and coat in the flour mixture. Pan fry in butter until brown, turn and brown other side. When frying in butter, keep a close eye on the temperature of the pan. Too hot and the butter will burn, too cool and the mushrooms won’t crisp up on the outside.
Remove the cooked mushrooms from the pan, sprinkle with salt, squeeze a couple drops of lime on each half and experience the food of the gods!