Wednesday, June 15, 2011

CwtBC (Pt. I): In search of the morel

Camping with the Brothers Cariaga:  My woodsy brothers, Eric and Calee, and our friends, Mike Bellmore and Kris Ross, have over the past six or seven years established a tradition of camping and fishing the Klamath River Canyon in late May and early June. This year, I joined them...

Morel in the wilds
Brothers Eric, Calee and I, with trusted friends Mike Bellmore and Kris Ross, went shrooming last weekend.

Joe Tacchini taught my dad, Ross Cariaga, how to find morel mushrooms when first he (Ross) moved to the Klamath Basin, back in the early 60s.  Almost fifty years later, his sons still scour the forest floors in search of the illusive and thoroughly-undomesticated fungus.  

Dad and Joe Tacchini
Back in the day, Dad and Joe would go "mushroom hunting."  Nowadays, they just call it "shroomin'" which, of course, has a completely different meaning in the drug counterculture.  When I was a child in Klamath Falls, springtime weekends often involved a drive into the mountains of southern Oregon to seek out morels.

Morels grow all over the world, including Europe, Israel, and eastern North America.  In other places, they are called by strange names:  "dryland fish," "merkels," "miracles," or my favorite "hickory chickens."  But in the western United States, where they range up and down the Cascade Mountains, from California to Alaska, we've never known them as anything other than "morels."

Morels defy domestication, which makes them something of a delicacy.  So far as I know, the fungus cannot be farmed.  There are professional harvesters (hard-bitten, woodsy folk) who start in California and work northward, living out of tents and around campfires, following the sprout.  No one knows better than they where to find morels in quantity, and they're not telling.  They sell the mushrooms to international buyers for anywhere from $5 to $15 per pound, depending on the market.  Brother Eric spoke with one of the women who claimed they were making three and four hundred dollars a day in the previous year.

Forest denizens
Morel mushrooms have a distinctive honeycomb cap that helps with identification.  They range in color from yellow to gray to black.  A big morel might grow to a height of 4 or 5 inches, but most seem to range from 1 to 3 inches.

Just as with any activity that takes place in nature, shroomin' is not a casual endeavor.  Eating mushrooms that one finds in the wild is potentially fatal.  There are plenty of lethal fungi out there.  And, in a particularly devious act, whatever goddess rules the Cascades deemed it fit to create certain toxic mushrooms, termed "falsies," that look like morels, but are not. 

"Falsie" mushroom
In fact, morels themselves are slightly toxic.  Never eat a raw morel. A thorough cooking removes the toxin, and renders the mushroom safe to eat.  Anecdotally, I've been eating (cooked) morels all my life and have never been sick from it. 

In dry climes, morels grow on the floors of coniferous forests. But it takes a practiced eye to spot them amid the needles and detritus at the feet of Ponderosa and Lodgepole pine.  (Brother Eric, wise in earthly knowledge, can spot them from the highway, at speed!)

Some say that morels thrive in forests that have recently had an undergrowth-killing low-intensity wildfire pass through.  The spores are released by the flames, and spread far and wide.  But the lore of morels is heavy with folksy superstition.  It is hard to know which tales are true.  And the morels do not themselves tell.

Monsieur Bellmore, camp chef extraordinaire
My crew spent a long Saturday afternoon shrooming so that, by that evening, we had roughly 5 pounds of fungus.  Our harvest fulfilled one tradition of the annual camping trip by providing the necessaries for "morel burger night."

Sliced up for cookin'
Mike, the esteemed camp chef, was positively gleeful at the prospect of cooking.  We no sooner arrived back at camp than he had me cleaning and slicing while he went to work.

Sautee with bacon, and peppers
He sauteed up a concoction of morels, bacon, and peppers.  Morels hold a surprising amount of water, but Mike cooked the whole thing down so that we could pile it on our camp burgers.  The pattys were made from beef raised in nearby Keno, Oregon.

I'll put Mike's Morel Burgers up against 5-star fare any day
We all know that aphorism about everything tasting better in the great outdoors, but I'll tell ya... Between the Keno beef, with its own distinct flavor, and the nutty, complex taste of the morels, we ate very well that night.  Two burgers each.  (Except for spartan, disciplined Brother Eric, who settled for one.)

Brother Calee wolfin'
Good eats, folks!  Mighty good eats!

Hickory chickens?!?
To be continued...


Calamityvt said...

mmmhhh !!! Morels ! I love it ! We can also find morels not far from my parent's house.

Dan Binmore said...

My parents took up the delights of mushrooming in the countryside once we moved out of the old smoke. There's a wide variety of edible fungi in Britain, my favourite being the parasol mushroom that tastes almost meaty. Unfortunately I also once picked up the Death Cap mushroom, didn't wash my hands properly, and although I didn't eat it I threw up for up many hours that night and avoided mushrooms for decades.