Slowly comprehending my unbridled arrogance, hot tears stung my eyes. Hiking alone for hours in California’s towering El Dorado National Forest, my gaze cast downwards onto the endless forest floor in front of me, I lost my way. Rather than following a specific path or trail, I was meandering through an enormous length of woods looking for mushrooms; the highly prized morel mushroom, specifically. Detaching from my mushroom eyes, I looked up and realized, with a gut-wrenching bolt of panic, I had absolutely no idea where I was. And thanks to my helter-skelter approach to foraging, I had no idea from which direction I had come.
Complete fucking amateur.
And the day had begun so well. I had taken explicit driving directions from my foraging guide the day prior. We had spent the day together hiking through several forests, 6,500 feet up the mountain, a 20-mile drive from its base. Not another soul in sight, I gratefully thought at the time. While we didn’t score the motherload of fungi fantasies, my constant travel mate, a heavily patined carbon steel knife, cut through the stems of six large morels, enough for a good supper. I was convinced that my highly focused, solo return the following day would yield far better results. I was already anticipating loading the de-hydrator; its reassuring whirring noise and the dark, earthy aroma of mushroom filling the kitchen, while glass Mason jars fill the pantry.
I arose with the sun, enjoying a cup of tea, a stretch and an early toke on the balcony of my room, which overlooked the vast, now green vineyards lining the bosomy hills of the tiny town of Fairplay. I loaded a compass and altitude gauge onto my phone and filled a water bottle. Crackers, cheese, foraging knives and mesh bags went into a pack. I stealthily slipped out the hotel’s front door, escaping the creepy hospitality of the property manager. Driving the back roads of the conifer-covered central Sierra Nevada Mountains, I wound past the Bluebird Haven Iris Gardens, its hills ablaze in late Spring resplendence; past Glory Hole Road; past thousands of tiny, canary-yellow flowers blanketing an entire valley; past dozens of swallows playing in the early morning sunlight near an ornately arched bridge across a crystalline stream.
An hour later, my old German tank, its diesel-fired engine huffing and puffing, was slowly making its way up the dramatic Mormon Emigrant Trail. Tucked into the El Dorado National Forest, this 170-mile trail was cleared in 30 days by The Mormon Battalion, who had spent the winter of 1847 in Northern California at the urging of their head chief, Brigham Young. In an effort to return home to their church and families, they literally blazed their own trail, which was put to further use soon after by those seeking more earthly fortunes in California’s Gold Rush.
As soon as the altimeter read 6,000 feet, I drove slowly the well-paved, desolate road, canvassing forests for parcels of wood charred black from the Forestry’s controlled burns; ideal habitat for Morchella, the true morel mushroom. ‘Stay in the burn’ was the morel mantra repeated many times by yesterday’s foraging guide. While morels grow elsewhere, fungi lovers have long believed those that sprout near a fire’s one-year old char are more intensely flavored. The theory is the delicious combination of dying trees, here the conifer, and the extermination by burning of forest floor creates a veritable feast of decayed organic matter for the conically shaped morel.
Hunting and fishing and foraging for food or artifacts provokes in me a greedy high akin to gambling; if I just get out there earlier and stay out a bit longer, try many different spots, stay in the game, in the zone, I’m bound to get lucky. But I wasn’t feeling too lucky having gone astray for hours in the forest. Numerous large animal tracks in the mud had me looking over my shoulder in every clearing through which I passed. I envisioned sleeping in a pile of leaves, maybe even winning The Darwin Award, but I prayed, not posthumously. After many hours and the third and final logging road hiked, I gratefully caught the glint of my old wagon in the bright afternoon light.
Morels are ugly, but quite distinct; one of the many reasons I wandered the forest in search of them. I couldn’t possibly mistake the morel’s honeycomb design for any other liver-melting species of mushroom. Even the toxic false morel’s appearance is obviously different. But it’s the real morel’s nutty, dark flavors of earth and forest that compel me into the backwoods, and then to the stove.
The land was rinsed from the half-dozen black morels, and they were sliced lengthwise. Into a hot pan went a generous corner from a block of salted Norman butter, and the chopped stalks of red Tropea onions, liberated days earlier from the garden, fried quickly. The mushroom slivers were fanned over the onions, along with a healthful splash of Bartoli Marsala. Several eggs, fancy in their blue/green shells, were whipped with heavy cream, salt and a course grind of black pepper. Over a low, flickering flame, the eggs were married to the mushrooms, shirred with a whisk until just barely cooked, and finished with a spoon of fresh ricotta. As I poured glasses of fawn-colored Gagnard Chassagne, I recalled a warning I read in one of the mycology books lining my desk; eating morels while drinking alcohol may produce symptoms of great intoxication.
Morels: California’s other cash crop.