Thursday, June 9, 2011

Morel Motherlode: From Helena IR

Photo by Eliza Wiley,

Another fine food gem from our local rag:
It was a good day of fishing — so good that the client of guide Mike Agee was ready to take a little break one recent afternoon and hike up one of the canyons that line the Gates of the Mountains stretch of the Missouri River.
That simple change of plans turned into a bonanza as they came upon dozens of morel mushrooms hidden among the foliage regenerating after the 2007 Meriwether wildfire. Agee said Tim Crawford with the Gates of the Mountains tour operation had told him the morels were pretty thick in the area.
"My dad calls it an Easter egg hunt for adults," Agee said, laughing. "It's kind of fun to find those little guys. Some are hard to see; you find one mushroom, then you might see 10 if you look around.
"We didn't go that far, and when we came back down we realized we had walked past a bunch of them."
Hunting for morels is a favorite pastime of many Montanans, and Cathy Cripps, a "mycologist" or mushroom expert at Montana State University, said we're about to embark on prime 'shroom season. She noted that typically the yellow morel season starts in mid May and runs into June, but this year's cool temperatures have delayed the start. The yellow morels are typically found in lower elevations, especially along streambeds where cottonwoods and juniper grow.
"Last weekend, we did pick some of the yellow morels, but now we have the flooding to contend with," Cripps said. "They like the ... sandy soil, and I think some folks toward Livingston take rafts along the river and stop at various cottonwood stands."
Two types of black morels burst out a little later at higher elevations. One species typically is found in blackened areas where wildfires burned, especially for two years after the blaze.
"That season should be starting soon," Cripps said.
She said their numbers usually wane in ensuing years, but was pleasantly surprised to hear Agee was finding them four years after the Meriwether fire.
"That may be an unusual circumstance because of the rain -- so maybe it's worth checking the older burns this year," Cripps said. "Those blackened areas may have warmer soil temperatures than other areas. That might be unique for this year."
Another species of black morels grows in unburned conifer forests among spruce and lodgepole pines in the higher elevations. Cripps noted that many of those areas still have snow on the ground, so while their season normally commences toward the end of June it may run a little longer this year.
Tim Lahey, a forester with the Helena National Forest, said they're directing people to last year's Davis fire as a good place to search for morels. He added that 'shroom hunters first need to stop by a Forest Service office to pick up a free permit. They also hand out maps, outlining which roads are open to the public and which are closed due to poor travel conditions.
"The free personal permits allow people to harvest up to 50 pounds per season," Lahey said. "The key is that it's for personal use only, so we're asking people to slice them when they collect them so they can't be sold."
He added that they're getting a lot of calls, and have issued 19 permits so far. They are not processing commercial requests.
Cripps said it's a good idea to split the morels in order to make sure they're not some other type of mushrooms. False morels, like verpa mushrooms, look like yellow or black ones, but the edge comes out like a skirt. For true morels, the edge of the cap is connected to the stem.
"If you cut it in half, you see one big, hollow inside," Cripps said. "The verpa mushroom cap is kind of wrinkled like the morel, but the edge of the cap is not connected. But if they're cooked well, some people may eat them."
The other type of false morel, a gyromitra mushroom, is redder than the yellow or black morels. It has a toxin that's cumulative in a person's body, and the fumes from it cooking can make a chef ill as the toxin boils off.
"It's a kind of rocket fuel," Cripps said. "Remember, reddish could be deadish."
She also cautioned against eating raw or undercooked morels, which can make people sick. They also shouldn't eat too many morels at one sitting, and go easy on them if they've never eaten morels before to ensure they don't have some kind of allergic reaction.
"We had five poison cases starting Sunday night through Monday morning," Cripps said. "Most were either from eating false morels, eating raw ones or having a reaction to them."
She added that people need to be careful when pairing alcohol with morels, because too much of them together has caused adverse reactions in some people.
Agee said that after they enjoyed morels with meals for a few days, he and his father dried the rest of them for future use.
"We ate a bunch of them prepared a couple of different ways, but after three or four days we got tired of mushrooms," he said.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or

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