A delicate delicacy Morel hunting in Plumas County

Morel mushrooms are scattered across the foreground of an area burned by the Chips Fire out near Caribou. During the month of May and early June, mushroom hunters collected these tasty fungi in abundance. Photo courtesy Jon Dvorak
James Wilson

  April showers bring May … morels?

  Mushroom hunters were in seventh heaven last month through the beginning of June, gathering heaps of a rare type of fungus: morels.

  Morels are a delicacy in many regions and can get rather costly when bought at the market. Luckily for Plumas and Lassen county residents, a whole slew of morels were ready for gathering right in the remains of the Chips Fire.

The mushroom

  Mushroom fans’ heads perk up at the mention of morels. The mushrooms are edible and extremely meaty. One of the biggest appeals of morels is that they are very rare.

  One distinctive characteristic of morels is their honeycomb-like appearance. The mushrooms have ridges and pits that cover their bodies.

  The rarity of these fungi falls in the type of ground they are found on. Morels are generally found under and around dead and dying trees. Burned areas, especially after wildfires, are the perfect sporing grounds for morels.

  After the Chips Fire, the soil began taking in the unique properties of the burned trees above it. This ultra-specific mix of nutrients made the morel spores activate and start growing this spring.

  The rare conditions needed for morels to grow make them impossible to plant. The only way to get them is to go out and hunt for them.

  Morels don’t stick around, however, and most of them that weren’t cultivated in May and early June have already rotted. Some success was recorded last week near Caribou, though the mushrooms were quite a bit tougher to find than they were in May.

The hunt

  Hunting for morels is a lot of fun for many people in the area and has become more popular in recent years. Though wildfires that burn the forests are devastating, mushroom hunters find the bright side to the disasters in searching for morels.

  Local mushroom hunter Dana Flett gathered 10 pounds of morels this season. Flett is a proponent of self-sustainability and tries to prepare as many of her meals as possible from food she has either grown or gathered herself.

  “When I went out looking for the morels it just reminded me of what an amazing place we live in,” said Flett. “We went out a handful of times and hopefully we’ll have enough to last us until next season.”

  Whole mushroom hunting tours have been set up that bring tourists into the county with the sole purpose of finding morels. A quick Google search of “mushroom hunting tours” brings up multiple sites offering package deals in which inexperienced fungus-hunters can tag along with a more experienced guide.

  Though going with a guide is not necessary for all, it is important to exercise caution while mushroom hunting. There are several species of false morels that have toxic properties and look similar to morels. Luckily, these species are rare — even more so than morels.

  Before going out, though, it’s important to familiarize oneself with the differences between true and false morels. The book “Mushrooms Demystified” by David Arora is a good resource for mushroom hunters.

  Once out in the field, the skill lies in observation. Morels can look like Douglas fir cones and blend into the ground.

  “Once you get your mushroom eyes on, they start popping out all around you,” said Flett. “You just have to get into the right mode and then you can find them all over.”

  Mushroom picking permits are available at the Mount Hough Ranger District. Permits must be acquired before any picking can be done. The cost for the permits is $1 per pound of mushrooms with a minimum purchase of 20 pounds.

  The price of morels if one were to purchase them is substantially higher. For 1 pound of frozen morels, House of Caviar & Fine Foods is charging $50, for example. On, 1 pound of dried morels is currently going for more than $350.

Reaping the benefits

  Hunting for morels can be fun, but eating them is even more fun. Morels have more of a woodsy taste to them than most mushrooms. They are also a bit more brittle, rather than rubbery, in their texture.

  There are many recipes online and in books on how to cook morels, though two ways are most traditional: sautéing them in butter and garlic, and breading and frying them.

  Morels can also be used in pasta, stir-fry and any type of food normally including mushrooms. Many recipes call for the morels themselves to be stuffed with other foods.

  Morels are as good for you as they are delicious. The mushrooms are extremely high in vitamin D, iron and B vitamins.

  Regardless of how they are cooked, morels do indeed need to be cooked. In addition to whatever bacteria are on and around raw morels when they are found, they also contain monomethylhydrazine, a volatile compound also used in rocket fuel. The chemical is lost in the cooking process.

  Though the season of the morel is just about passed in Plumas and Lassen counties, there are still plenty around that have been gathered. Now the hunt has shifted to finding those who still have some.

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