I read somewhere recently that North America is the center of morel diversity on the planet. This news shouldn’t surprise hardcore morel hunters in the New World, who already know firsthand about morels yet to be described in the scientific literature, some of which have funny common names like “bananas” and “pickles.” The pickle, for instance, is a type of burn morel found late in the season with a dark, greenish hue and thick, three-walled flesh. Pickles (also called “greenies”) are so dense they resist drying efforts. Most recreational mushroom hunters have never seen a pickle but commercial harvesters in the Northwest are familiar with such oddities in the Morchella genus—as are a handful of chefs in the know.
Another morel that only received species status in 2008 is known to hunters in the Western U.S. and Canada as the gray morel, Morchella tomentosa (not to be confused with the Midwestern “gray” which is an immature yellow morel, Morchella esculenta). It’s also a late-fruiting species that inhabits burned conifer forests, usually coming on the heels of the conica flush (Morchella conica is the Latin name preferred by commercial pickers for the most common species of burn morel, though this Old World name could be subject to change with future DNA testing). Unlike many species of morels, grays can be readily identified on sight. They have two main color types: gray and blonde (though some refer to intermediate browns as well); their caps are densely pitted; and their stems are darker and thicker than most other species. Grays also have tell-tale hairs, especially near the base of the stem when young, that are easily seen with a hand lens; hence their other common name: fuzzy foot morel.
The photo above shows typical grays (background), blonde grays (right foreground), and conicas (left foreground), all in the same frame. Many restaurateurs prefer the thin-walled conicas because they’re lightweight and thus more morels can be plated per serving, at least visually. Besides, grays typically command a higher price in the marketplace. But chefs looking for the best quality morels are apt to swoon over the pricier yet meatier grays.
Last week I had the chance to introduce Daniel Klein of The Perennial Plate to his first gray morels. Daniel has hunted morels in his home state of Minnesota before, but he’d never seen anything like the lightning burn I took him to in the North Cascades. We backpacked in several miles and spent a late afternoon slogging up and down the steep, scorched sides of a remote drainage above 5,000 feet. Rocky taluses, logjams of downed timber, and ash-covered slopes conspired to trip us up in the bush, and the mosquitoes were hell.
Despite all this, Daniel was grinning. Now he understood what all the fuss was about with Western burn morels. “They’re everywhere!” he said, incredulous. To be honest, I was a little disappointed. We were a week late—or maybe a week early. The conicas were drying out fast and the grays had only just begun.
Still, we found enough of both species to enjoy a big camp meal of Fettuccine with Morels and Herbs beside an alpine lake and take home a load for the dehydrator. The scenery was spectacular and we had that good feeling in our bodies of muscle exertion that always accompanies a vigorous trek into the wilderness. The only thing missing was a hip flask of Beam to pass around as the stars began to wink on after dusk.
I saved my nicest grays in the fridge for a special meal a few days later, cooking up a favorite surf ‘n’ turf stir-fry for friends old and new, Sichuan Fish-Fragrant Geoduck with Morels. Normally this dish showcases the clam, but gray morels are so hearty and flavorful they managed to stand up to the main ingredient. It was a feast fit for the king of morels.