The morel is one of the most delicious and valuable wild mushrooms found in our area. Yet the enthusiasm for this wrinkled fungi seems to reach beyond mere acquisition and consumption. People in the know (Author, Patrick McManus refers to them as the “morel minority”) seem to derive their pleasure from a synergy created by all aspects of the morel experience.
Examples of extreme measures taken by people to obtain morels are plentiful. In Europe, landowners would burn their own forests just to stimulate the production of this mushroom. Following the 1994 forest fires, which created ideal growing conditions for the fungi near Libby, Montana, conflicts over prime morel picking spots inspired threats and even gunplay. Other evidence of seemingly irrational exuberance include numerous festivals held in honor of the morel, the fact that Michigan designates May as morel month, and in Minnesota, it is the official state mushroom.
The timing of this mushroom’s appearance undoubtedly contributes to the experience. Morels prosper during a warming trend following a cool, moist period. Warm days from May to June are ideal times to look for morels. For me, my neighbors tulip patch gives an indication of when to hit the woods. It seems as though when his flowers are just budding it is time for me to head for my favorite morel spots.
At first glance morels appear rather homely; however, upon closer examination they have a certain charm and special character that is unique as well as elegant. This distinctive appearance makes it very difficult to confuse them with any other mushroom; another feature that appeals to pickers. A word of caution needs to be inserted here. Although morels are very distinctive, there are other mushrooms that can confuse inexperienced pickers. If there is any doubt about your ability to identify a morel, have an experienced picker you trust show you one.
Knowing positively what a morel looks like and when it grows does not guarantee success. Morels are very elusive and unpredictable. They have a color and texture that blend well into their surroundings, making them very difficult to see. They are found in many different habitats. Environmental conditions need to be just right for them to appear. Other than the fact that disturbance, such as from fire or logging, stimulates their production, there is little indication of where they might be found. And don’t expect much help from the “morel minority.” People who have worked hard enough to know areas that produce consistently, or have learned “tricks” to narrow their search, are very unlikely to give up this information. You are on your own and it takes a combination of skill, perseverance, and luck to overcome all of these challenges. Perhaps this is the essence of the morel experience.
There is one small task morels require; however, that is not quite as pleasant or exiting as the rest of the experience. They need to be cleaned well. The best way is to split them down the middle, lengthwise, and wash them thoroughly. Then it is a good idea to soak them for several hours in cool salt water and put them through one final rinse and blot on a towel.
Assuredly, the taste and economic value of the morel are also major contributors to the experience. I checked a few supermarkets in the Coeur d’Alene area while writing this article and the lowest price I found for dried morels was $4.99 for one half ounce!
I personally have never found more morels than I care to part with. Their flavor is exceptional and they are very easy to prepare. About the only rule that must be followed is that they need to be cooked well. I enjoy them best sautéed in real butter with a few leeks (large green onions that have a slightly sweet taste); however, they are delicious prepared in any mushroom recipe and there are a wealth of published recipes to choose from. If more morels have been gathered than can be prepared, they are also very easy to preserve. The fastest and easiest way is to sauté and freeze. They also dry nicely or may be canned.
As the weather warms, be sure to consider adding the morel experience to your appreciation of our Northwest forests.