Morel story

’Tis the season for that most coveted wild mushroom

Late snows and a cold spring mean a less bountiful harvest for morel hunters in 2011.

Late snows and a cold spring mean a less bountiful harvest for morel hunters in 2011.

Photo By Johnny klemme

As surely as the snow melts and the earth warms, morels will push their wrinkly heads from the ground to greet the spring.

This highly coveted wild mushroom—a worldwide delicacy of the Morchella genus—is a seasonal phenomenon, with most morels appearing locally between March and June. Spice Creek Café began receiving its first of the season two weeks ago—clean, grit-free beauties harvested near Fresno, according to Rebecca Stewart, the restaurant’s owner and chef. Stewart finds the morel’s woodsy, smoky flavor best suited for sparely seasoned vegetable dishes of spring greens, fava beans, or fennel. She also serves sautéed morels over pasta.

“Whatever I do, it’s always going to be light so that you can taste the morels,” she says. “I’d never mix them in with other mushrooms.”

Craig Thomas, chef and owner of Red Tavern, also goes “as simple as possible” when preparing morels. A favored recipe is nothing more than the mushrooms sautéed in olive oil and seasoned lightly.

In the last days of March, Thomas received the spring’s first batch—a five-pound purchase of huge morels, each five inches tall. At his second restaurant, Farm Star Pizza, Thomas has been adding slices of these whoppers as a bonus topping to his green-eggs-and-ham pizza.

Unlike other common wild mushrooms, morels are believed by most experts not to be mycorrhizal, a term describing the symbiotic relationship between many fungi and perennial plants. Porcini mushrooms, for example, partner up with Monterey pines in coastal areas. In the mountains, they do so with firs, and in Europe they favor chestnuts. Chanterelles are often mycorrhizal with oaks. For mushroom hunters, these tree-fungus associations form the foundation of a basic hunting strategy: Identify the tree, find the mushroom.

But morels, by contrast, are lawless renegades, appearing unpredictably and just about anywhere. As the mantra goes, “Morels grow where one finds them.”

There are secrets to success, however. Any experienced morel hunter knows to look in burned forests scorched the summer prior. In such ashy hotspots, morel hunters, crawling on their hands and knees, may turn gray as chimney sweepers but go away with clutches of legendary size. Hundred-pound hauls are not unheard of. In developed areas, morels very often appear in gardens, around compost piles, on heaps of wood chips, and in fire pits. They seem to favor disturbed soils.

Those who venture into the woods for morels must, first, know the rules and regulations on mushroom hunting. In some areas, the activity is entirely prohibited, while in others daily harvest limits apply. Google before you go. Second, morel hunters must know their quarry by sight. They must also know the “false morels,” ugly fiends similar enough to a morel to cause confusion but toxic enough to cause severe discomfort or death if ingested.

Some restaurateurs have a direct relationship with professional mushroom hunters, who are sometimes as strange and mysterious as the fungi they pursue. Mushroom hunters often live nomadic and secretive lives, following the blooms, filling sacks, and selling for cash. Such people appear periodically at the door of Red Tavern, Thomas says.

“They smell like a campfire and they show up in these old battered cars,” he says. “They travel like bands of Gypsies.”

They are rather unpredictable, too, and most restaurants deal with mushroom wholesalers, who in turn work with multiple foragers. Todd Spanier owns a wholesale service called King of Mushrooms in Santa Clara County. Also an avid recreational hunter, Spanier has only meager hopes for this season’s morel crop.

“It’s been a cold spring and there’s a lot of snow,” said Spanier earlier this month. “There also weren’t a lot of fires last year.”

But he says areas that were heavily disturbed by brush-clearing crews or subjected to the wrath of loggers last summer or fall will be good places to look. Whatever the outcome on your next foray, morels will be growing where you find them.