My compatriots down in Oregon—Oregoons, ev'ry one of 'em—have been killing it on the big riparian yellows. Meanwhile up here in the topleft corner we're still thawing out. But after a few days of 90-degree heat last week and then a good rain spell, it was time to screw on the morel nose.
The day started out well enough. In a little clearing near a logging cut I found this alien space egg...I mean giant western puffball (Calvatia booniana). Bigger than a softball and a few pounds, it should fry up nicely with some scrambled eggs. This was the mental boost I needed: hunting morels can get discouraging, and like any pursuit, as soon as you're convinced the object of your desire is unattainable, you're doomed.
I continued east, in the direction of warmth. That's the gating factor (as they say in CubeLand)—the morels require sufficient ground temps before they'll deign to grace us with their ephemeral presence. Timing is key. If it rains too much after a flush the morels can turn to mush. Too hot and they dry out; too cold and they shrivel. Some hunters even use thermometers to take the Earth's crust's temperature. I prefer gauging with other plants and fungi.
I knew I was in the right place, at the right time. All the indicators were flashing code red. Or something like that. First there was the flurry of Calypso bulbosa, the delicate fairy slipper orchid (above right). Trilliums were turning from white to pink. Then there was the cup fungi, and nearby a fruiting of verpas and a colony of snowbank false morels (pictured below).
The snowbank morels suggested I should seek out a sunnier spot or drop down in elevation; they usually fruit a couple weeks ahead of the true morels. And sure enough, nearby in a sun-exposed high-water wash of disturbed, sandy soil, I found this, my first of the year:
But with only a handful to show for myself after a good long search in the area, the decision was made: drop down in elevation.
With this gameplan in mind, I checked a few spots and came away with a couple dozen morels, including this monster to the right. I bushwhacked through some incredibly inhospitable territory—and yet it was clear I was not the first to pass through the area with a mushroom basket. I found evidence of other mycophagists: a footprint here, disturbed brush there. I even found a pencil—no doubt being used to jot down coordinates of secret stashes.
In the Northwest, the first flush of morels follows the river valleys east of the Cascades. I'm convinced a large part of one's success is determined by the intensity of hunting pressure. There are only so many of these beauties to go around, and in fairly confined areas at that. Later, when the mountain morels start to pop, the pressure spreads out. But the key to success during the initial pulse is to find unoccupied territory. It was clear to me that other pickers were on the prowl, so I moved on, checking spots until I arrived here:
I could have plowed on, but what's the point? Greed only lessens the experience. It was time to get home so I could enjoy a proper celebration.
The meal started out with a Midwest classic: fried morels. I halved several of the prime specimens, dipped them in flour, and fried gently in butter for ten minutes.
The main was a grilled veal chop smothered in morel cream sauce with brown rice and sauteed kale from the garden. It was good.