In search of mushrooms Wildflowers, forest ambience add to enjoyment of hunt

June 08, 2010 12:38 pm
You hear the conversations when you’re in line getting coffee or mailing a letter. They say they brought home morels, buckets-full. Gallons of them. Four pounds. Enough to sell and pay for a tattoo. Conquest stories.

Not many people pick mushrooms in my home state, Hawaii, anymore. Too much knowledge has been lost and has been replaced by caution and a general fear. So when I first came to Oregon and heard about lots of people picking mushrooms, not just specialists, I wanted to try it.

The first time I came across morels and calfbrains by chance at the base of what looked like an old landslide, we scaled the hill but only came home with a third of a baseball cap full. I was with a friend who knew how to identify these things and I didn’t worry too much when he paused to look at the calfbrain mushroom and said, “Wait, I think this can kill you ... oh no, nevermind, we can eat this.”

We ate our hunt, sauteed in a little butter. They shrank and were consumed in less than a minute. But one can’t get the taste of a morel or a calfbrain mushroom (even if it’s just a tablespoon’s worth) out of their memory.

It seems not many locals will tell an outsider exactly where to go to get mushrooms. If they even acknowledge your questions at all, they’ll say Mount Emily has them or Ladd Creek, and this is about as useful as saying morels exist in Oregon. It’s good, though, that the locals don’t offer much information, because it’s a fun challenge to learn about morels year after year.

One year, I figured out how I like to clean them and dry them. You don’t want them water-logged, but they are so easily water-logged. Everyone has his or her own method. Each year, you have only a few days to a week total to learn how to cook the fresh wild mushrooms right so that the flavor and texture are the best.

Usually, I just add a small find of morels into a frittata or migas, which is similar to chilaquiles. Eggs seem a natural match for morels. But, sometimes they match too much, and the morel flavor is lost. They go well with beef too, since morels have a meatiness about them.

Calfbrains, which I prefer to morels, certainly taste kind of like steak. Morels are good on homemade pizza. We recently made two — one with the mushrooms and one with wild-harvested watercress (thanks Denny!). I like them best dry sauteed with a little butter added at the end. Every mushroom-picker has his or her own favorite ways to eat them.

I know several people, though, who like the searching for mushrooms, like morels, better than they like eating them. Sometimes I feel that way too. I like being out in the forest, which like us, weathered another winter. The smell of the environment is unmatchable. It must be a mix between the lichen and the tree bark, the duff and the deer. And if you’re around ponderosas, stop and smell the space between the cracks in the bark. You’ll wonder if it’s possible to bottle the smell, which is something like vanilla, but better.

I’m always distracted by the fairy slipper orchids, associated with morels. They are tiny and pink and have one leaf each. The anemones seem perfect and low-down yellow violets have details that look hand-drawn. Round miner’s lettuce are like lily pads on land.

I guess I spend so much time with the flowers and the lichen because I’m not an expert at finding morels. Maybe one day, I’ll have a fraction of the knowledge the old-timers and locals have. In the meantime, I’ll be happy with all I can get, even if it’s just a handful.

Eden Kruger is a news assistant at The Observer.