My sister Maggie and I grew up in Ontario knowing the magic of morels. Hunting for these little sponge-like mushrooms was an important, if elusive, part of spring thanks to our mother’s own obsession with wild local foods. The month of March was about collecting maple sap to boil down over an open fire until it became a smoky golden syrup. Cold nights and warm sunny days were necessary to make the sap run. We then waited for the season to heat up to just the right temperature for the morels to pop out of the ground, which usually happened in early May. The weather couldn’t get too hot but had to maintain the correct mix of cool nights, sunny days and carefully timed rain. My mother knew the woodlots where to go looking, and we would find morels in church yards and at the side of roads, but in all my childhood I never remember having more than a good feed or two a year, if we were lucky. The most morels I ever saw at one time filled a 2-quart basket. They were as precious as true love and just as hard to find.
When Maggie moved out to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in west-central Washington State over thirty-years ago, she started sending stories and photos of the results of the morel hunt here. There have been years that, with her husband Tom, they have found big garbage bags full! So many that after almost making themselves sick eating them, they would freeze them, dry them, and still have some to give away.
After years of fantasizing about finding masses of these delectable little fungi, I finally made it to Leavenworth in the right season to take part in this addictive pastime. It has been one of the longest picking seasons the locals can remember, lasting from April and will go well into June. So as often as we can, we head up into the mountains and walk for hours, expecting to fill our bags, hoping to find the motherlode.
The conditions this year have been perfect – the nights are still cold, the days have been quite warm but not too hot, the rain falls just enough to keep the ground moist. We started at the lower elevations and are now, close to three weeks later, finding good amounts up near the spring snowline at around 3000 feet. Even with Maggie, Tom and another couple of keen experienced hunters, Kim and Matt, it is still a challenge. We have returned to places where they found plenty other years but have only come away with a handful but we haven’t been skunked yet either. I have come to realize that there is no rhyme or reason to where they may be, even though the conditions are perfect, and thus you just have to enjoy the hunt and keep hoping to bump into the pot of morels at the end of the rainbow.
Then you walk down an old bush road at just the right moment and the babies are everywhere, loving the disturbed ground, seduced into growth by a sunbeam. If you get down close to the ground, you can see the shape of the bigger ones standing out like big deformed thumbs, but as often as not you are searching for their unique shape against the earth where they are very well camouflaged. You have to get “into the zone” with eyes that can distinguish them from the pine cones and last autumn’s leaf litter.
Of course, all this hunting means we get to spend many hours of many days wandering around these beautiful pine and spruce covered hills, glimpsing deer, listening to the juncos and chickadees, breathing in the fresh mountain air.
Flowers such as yellow violets, fading trilliums, delicate purple orchids and Indian paintbrush sprinkle colour about. There are no insects (except for the possibility of ticks), the bears aren’t out berry-picking yet (they are down close to town raiding people’s garbage bins), and the vegetation is light and easy to get through. It is prime mountain time.
Once you bring the morels home, you must wash them to lose the sand and soak them in salty water to evict any bugs, slice the big ones, and cook them up – in any number of ways. Simply pan-fried in butter or in a light tempura batter shows off their delicate taste the best, but in an Alfredo sauce with seasonal asparagus over pasta or with scrambled eggs for breakfast is wonderful too. My mouth keeps watering just at the thought of eating them. I’ve dried enough to fill a small baggie which I’ll reconstitute when I get home to Ontario. Each meal will bring me back to these glorious spring days in the mountains.
There are only two morel hunting days left before I leave for Vancouver, and so we will head back to the river canyons and trailheads – the Icicle, Scotty Creek, Tumwater – and hopefully the motherlode of morels will present herself to us. If not, I leave satisfied, if not completely sated. As with true love, it is that possibility of finding it around the next corner that keeps us searching.
Happy pickers with the motherlode (found on Sunday May 23, 2010, up the Icicle)