Check out this beautiful funghi! Admittedly, what looks like a couple of shriveled up baby pine cones might only be something that only a funghi forager (like myself) would get excited about. Well believe me, when I found this lovely pair (after 45 minutes of foraging) I was jumping up and down!
My first ever mushroom foray took place several weeks ago right outside the gates of Yosemite National Park. The idea for the trip was spearheaded by my good friend Keelyn, an experienced mushroom forager, who has foraged and found many a morel, chanterelle and porcini in the woods of Northern California and Washington. Also along for the ride were my SF friends Kirk W. and Tara P.
Camp Mather, which is owned by the City of San Francisco Parks and Recreation department, was our headquarters that weekend. The historic camp was located just south of the Yosemite National Park’s Hetch Hetchy entrance and just several miles from where we were set to forage.
Springtime is generally when morels start to make their appearance in these parts..often in areas that have experienced either a burn several years prior, or where there’s lots of brush or undergrowth for them to hide under.
Our weekend mushroom trip (which coincided with Kee’s birthday) was organized by the San Francisco Mycological Society, an organization which helps educate and promote the appreciation and enjoyment of mushrooms throughout the Bay Area.
Several times during the year, the MSSF organizes weekend trips to various locations around northern California in order to collect, enjoy and (hopefully) consume the non-poisonous delicacies that the group finds.
After getting settled in our cabins, the four of us headed over to the cafeteria for a spaghetti dinner and then a post prandial slideshow of, yes mushrooms. Slide after slide after slide of beautifully drawn mushrooms, but oddly enough, not a single slide was shown illuminating what I was to be foraging for the next day. Nonetheless, it was really pretty awesome seeing this group so passionate and into their shrooms..
The following morning the four of us (fortified with coffee, oatmeal and powdered eggs) headed for the hills with several other eager to find funghi folk, and Norm, our group leader. Luckily for us, Norm was considered one of the best, and has lead such expeditions for the past 26 years. This, mes amis, is man who knows how to find les champignons.
Before traipsing off into the woods, Norm instructed our group on what to look for when foraging for morels. More specifically, morels seem to love decay. Areas that contain a considerable amount of dead or decomposing organic material were good places to look.
Also, morels seemed to thrive in areas that had experienced burns (i.e. forest fires) a year or two prior. The exact reason for this is not really known, however given Norm’s vast experience on the subject, I took this information as a given.
Dead or decaying organic matter includes places under and around felled trees, under (vast piles of) pine needles, and in moist deep dirt. Here is Tara, demonstrating the lost art of morel foraging. This picture is pretty typical of how we spent most of the eight hours out “in the field” that day. And apart from having to squint all day and a sore back, there are hazards to foraging. Five minutes after taking this picture, Tara and I turned over a log and found an impressive scorpion!
And did I mention that these buggers are hard to see! One of our fellow foragers compared morel foraging to looking at a Where’s Waldo picture. You really have to look hard, and sometimes you’ll still miss the morel pretty much directly under your feet.
Unlike Chanterelles, which are a bright golden yellow and easily visible, or porcinis with their round reddish caps, morels just “disappear” into their surroundings., and as such they really do an excellent job at eluding capture.
Which is pretty much what happened to Kirk the first hour out. Zippo, nada..but when he did find his first set, victory was oh so sweet! Once Kirk was officially initiated, he was cooking with gas and there was no looking back. And with all of our mushroom eagle eyes in focus and our foraging baskets, the four of us found about 5 lbs of morels!
Back at Camp Mather that evening, our crew unloaded our bounty, along with a slew of other non morels that we had discovered along the way. The senior taxonomists of the MSSF were on hand to identify each specimen and indicate whether or not they were edible.
Also on hand were several bottles of Navarro Vineyards Chenin Blanc to enjoy after a long day of foraging. I certainly have a new found appreciation for foraging and the delicacy of the morel mushroom. What a rewarding day it was looking for these little morsels of earth’s buried treasure!