It’s been a good year for morels throughout much of the country, though your own mileage may vary. I picked my first “naturals” in the third week in April and the action in Washington State hasn’t slowed since.
Mushroom hunters across North America have had a chance to put new names to several familiar faces this spring. Last year, in the September-October issue of Mycologia, Michael Kuo et al proposed a revision to morel taxonomy that added a number of new species to the lineup. (An identification key can be found here.) For the first time, those of us in the West could reliably identify our beloved natural black morel as Morchella snyderi, with its habitat in unburned forest, lacunose stem, and black ridges on the cap. Another not-so-scientific identifying feature that I use, especially in areas where naturals and burn morels are in close proximity, is feel: naturals are noticeably cool to the touch.
We’ve also seen fair numbers of that confounding morel, the “mountain blond,” found in unburned western montane forests of mixed fir and pine (a commercial hunter I know insists that ponderosa must be present nearby to find this mushroom). Some years we get very few, for reasons that are not readily apparent, and their fruiting tends to be in scattered locales. Mountain blonds have the same coloration as yellow morels (i.e. Morchella esculentoides), but their morphology is more akin to black morels; turns out they’re part of the black morel group (or clade), a taxonomic revelation that didn’t surprise anyone who works with these mushrooms from year to year. While they’re one of our most beautiful morels, sadly, their flavor in the pan is less than striking. In the new classification, they carry the apt name Morchella frustrata.
In addition to the naturals, mushroom hunters in the Pacific Northwest have benefitted from the region’s fire ecology, with a number of last year’s burns producing decent—if not epic—morel picking across eastern Washington and Idaho. So far the biggest of them all, the 45,000-acre Table Mountain complex, has proved something of a bust. Never have so many footsteps yielded so few mushrooms. This burn is getting stomped by a stampede of both commercial and recreational pickers, and the lower elevation habitat never had a chance to take off with so much pressure. Hopefully the crowds will thin as more ground becomes available in Idaho and elsewhere and we’ll have a decent pick on top at higher elevation. Meanwhile, the mushroom hunter using strategery has done well in a host of smaller burns.
Anyone with experience picking burn morels knows there are lots of different looking species that emerge from the ash, especially in the greater Pacific Northwest. How many of these are different enough in their DNA to warrant species status remains to be seen. So far we have Morchella sextelata and M. septimelata, which are apparently impossible to separate without a microscope, plus M. capitata, told by its chambered stem, and the visibly distinctive “gray” or “fuzzyfoot” morel, M. tomentosa. The latter is perhaps the most coveted morel by chefs in the know; large and beefy, it’s one of the last of the burn morels to show and is just getting started where I’ve been hunting. There are others. A morel that looks just like the mountain blond, M. frustrata, appears sparingly in burns as well. And then there’s the banana…and the greenie…
Morels pair especially well with seafood. The dish pictured at top and bottom is pan-seared sea scallops with fingerling potatoes and sautéed morels in a green pea sauce. A simple and elegant way to enjoy one of the fleeting culinary treasures of spring.