Foraging is hard to get into. There are some books, and some online resources, but unless you know where to go, what to look for, and - especially important with mushrooms - what to avoid, it's daunting. Similarly to hunting, if you want to be effective and respectful, you have to know the people that know... and the people that know tend to play their cards close to their chest.
I've taken city foraging workshops before, but have wanted proper education in the area for ages. So when EatWild, one of my favourite local, sustainable outdoors-meets-food companies announced a two-day foraging trip alongside their usual hunting trips, I was in.
The trip started with the drive to Cache Creek. Morel mushrooms appear in the sites that were affected by forest fires in the previous year, and with the devastating fires we had in 2017, it was a bumper crop.
We met up with the group, facilitated by EatWild and brokered by a local working hand in hand with the First Nations band in the area. The intent was to ensure that this wild west of an industry was managed better than in previous years, through the establishment of a permitting process, and the implementation of regulations and facilities to minimize the environmental impact of the pickers, buyers and brokers who descend for the harvest.
For the harvesting itself, we connected with a mushroom expert in the area who knew exactly what terrain to look for. He didn't give away all of his trade secrets - he had it down to a science including elevation - but the basic highlights of likely morel environments include:
- South facing (early in the season) or North facing slopes ( later in the season);
- Disturbed areas (post-burn or near logging roads);
- Fruitful areas with lots of fallen pine needles and mulch (some burned areas are too dead, you're looking for the middle ground);
- Often near mixed stands of trees (fir plus others.)
They appear March through May, usually after the spring rains or the start of the warming season (but before it gets too hot.)
Great line from Field & Stream about finding morel spots:
Hunting morels is like bass fishing. You cover ground until you find one, then slow down and search the area carefully. Concentrate the rest of your hunt on similar areas, on the theory that you've found the "pattern" for the day.
When you've found a likely spot, start to scan. Once you spot your first morel, you know you will come across more as they appear in clusters, and your eyes will be trained to looking for them.
Cut them at the base of the stem with a knife, brush off any dirt, and deposit them in your bucket or basket. You don' t need to worry about the 1/3rd harvesting rule (leave 2/3rds of any harvest behind) as in the harvesting process you'll disturb and leave behind enough mushroom spores for next year's crop. Morels also have a short lifecycle, so if they aren't harvested in their prime, they will turn to mush within a week or two regardless.
How to identify morels:
- Distinctive pits (honeycomb) in the cone
- Firmly attached to the base of the stem (unlike 'umbrella' mushrooms)
- Hollow and without a cottony filling
- Black, brown or grey
- Choice morels are about the size of your thumb, and should be firm (never mushy)
Given the abundance of the season, it was an easy harvest - though the terrain is unwieldy given the deadfall and the mulch cover, the mosquitos horrendous, and the weather off-kilter (we went from sun to hail in 15 minutes.) As with any time in the wilderness, be smart about it. We were equipped with compasses to direct us back to the road, direction to stay within voice and visual distance of another person, and time checks. Foragers get lost and die every year, so take precautions and don't become a precautionary tale.
On the way to camp and dinner, we learned more about the mushroom industry in BC. It's a wild one. Brokers will descend into BC for the season, set up networks with buyers wherein they'll hand over upwards of $100,000 in cash for the buyers to set up (secure) tent cities along the logging roads. Pickers (who've also set up camp for the season) will bring their daily harvests to the buyers who will pay $7/lb for mushrooms which will eventually go for as much as $60/lb in the market. Brokers in BC arrange for daily transportation of the mushrooms to Paris, where they're especially prized and will go for a premium. Good pickers can bring in more than 25 lbs a day, though I ended up with about 15 lbs over the day and a half we picked.
At dinner, we had our first taste. Morels must be cooked otherwise they can be mildly toxic. Regardless of preparation, always go slow if you've never tried morels. A small percentage of people will have an adverse reaction that includes minor pain and cramping, so best to know you can enjoy before you go full hog.
How to cook morels
While there was talk of goat-cheese stuffed and deep fried morels (the recipe for which are on our group leader's food blog), we kept it simple and pan-fried them in butter. Wash them if they're dirty, add them to a medium-high cast iron pan to release the water and cook for 5 minutes, then add butter and thinly sliced garlic for another 5. Have them as a side, or add them to anything.
For the week following, Mat and I ate morels every night. With pasta (in a walnut brown butter sauce), with eggs, on pizza.
How to dry morels
Given the abundance of the harvest, I then dried the remaining 10 lbs on drying racks in front of a small fan on our dining room table. After three days, they dried up and desiccated to a third of their size, and are now stored in the pantry in large mason jars. Next mushroom mission: creating the best recipe for Christmas giveaways. Risotto, perhaps?
All in all, I can't wait to dive further into this world of foraging. There is something incredible about getting into the wilderness, deepening your understanding of the land, and connecting with our original food system before big agriculture got involved. It's inspiring, freeing, and, well, super tasty.