I’ve written before about the importance of getting the lay of the land when you are a forager, and about how vital it is to have a wide range of foraging grounds. So when my friend Josh invited Holly and I up to the high Sierra for a foraging trip, he didn’t have to ask me twice.
Josh said he could have sworn he’d seen gooseberry bushes last year while he was mountain quail hunting, and we knew we’d see manzanita. I also wanted to get some spruce or fir tips to make fir tip syrup — I’ve been wanting to do that ever since I read Laurie’s excellent account of all the things you can do with spruce or fir tips two years ago.
I also had it back in my mind that maybe — just maybe — we’d find a few morel mushrooms. I have a confession to make: I’ve never found a morel mushroom anyplace other than a mulch bed. Nope. I searched for them in vain in Minnesota — found lots of shaggy mane mushrooms, but no morels. Wah. Last year I spent some time looking, again, to no avail.
Now I’ve eaten more morels than I care to remember, but of late I’ve been getting them all from my friends at Earthy Delights. I even made a few awesome recipes with their morels several weeks ago. But I hesitated to post them. I was feeling like a bad forager. What? Making all this morel goodness without actually gathering your own?! I could hear Langdon Cook tsk! tsking! me in my mind… So I put morels out of my head.
The higher we drove, the further back in time we went. They say each 1,000 feet is like a week, and we were going up to 5,500 feet. But by the time we pulled over, at the site of an old forest fire, it felt like, well, early March in Sacramento — the whole area we were wandering around had been covered in snow just a few weeks ago.
The elderflowers, now in full bloom in Sacramento, were just barely leafing out here. The manzanita was just starting to flower; I care about manzanita because, like the fir tips, I want to make a syrup out of the manzanita apples. Josh said he’d seen the gooseberries — one of my favorite berries when I lived in Minnesota — growing along with some weird ground cover. It’s what we’re looking at in the picture above.
The world up there is magical, especially around the little rushing streams choked with cool plants, including another species of ribes — ribes, by the way, include both gooseberries and currants. This species was much more showy, and although we did not realize it at the moment, on further reflection I realized it’s probably a pink-flowered currant. Why? Other than the pink flowers, they are in a cluster: Gooseberries flower singly, currants flower in clusters.
Now to my knowledge, all currants and gooseberries are edible. Some are tastier than others. And now we know where two species live. Josh was up here last in August, looking for quail, and the berries were gone already. So we’ll come up in July to check.
Looking down, I also noticed thousands and thousands of amaranth seedlings. Amaranth is one of the best warm-weather greens, and is more nutritious than spinach. It grows like wildfire, so when we check for the berries in a month they ought to be large enough to harvest.
The cool thing about wandering around in a new place is encountering new plants for the first time. I knew what I was looking at was either gooseberry or currant, but I’d never seen these varieties before. And there were plenty of other plants none of us could identify.
We were entranced by these flowers, and only later determined that they are called Five Spots, for obvious reasons.
The forest had not really recovered from this fire yet, so we drove on a bit into some surviving woods. Once we stopped, I stepped off into the trees (and over some more gooseberries) and felt that cool, moistness of a forest after the snows have passed; a small surviving snowbank clung to the north face of a hollow.
“You know,” I said to Holly, “This feels like a place where you’d look around and see nothing, then all of a sudden there’d be morels all around you.” How did I know this? Partly intuition, partly from reading so much about morel habitat. And now I was finally in it: Conifer woods, springtime, moist bottom, patches of sun, lots of duff and humus. I looked down…
I swear I could hear the angels singing. A morel! And not just one, either. They were indeed all around us! We all froze, not wanting to accidentally step on a mushroom that goes for $30 a pound, minimum. All told, this patch yielded only about 30 mushrooms, but still. It was a grand moment. We also found lots of other mushrooms, including this pretty little fairy mushroom, which is smaller than the nail on your pinkie:
After this, we headed down the mountain to about 3,000 feet, and the terrain — and heat — felt more like home. Josh said he hunts this spot with some frequency, and told us if we were lucky, we might see the fox that hung out around there. Well, we didn’t see the fox, but we did see fox shit.
And on it were two Lorquin’s admiral butterflies enjoying the meal. Apparently many butterflies are big fans of feces — who knew?
Further down the path we encountered something none of us had ever experienced: A ladybug swarm. They were everywhere — millions of them flying around in a cloud, wandering over every bush, getting into our hair and clothes. Josh and Holly said they even got bit by them. Go figure.
I spotted some wild mint and gathered it. Maybe I’ll make a wild mint ice cream in a day or so…
All in all, it was a good haul. We found some new places to forage, got some morels, fir tree tips and wild mint. And we saw all sorts of new things.
Back at home, I used what morels I did not give to Josh to revisit one of the first recipes I did for this site: venison with morel sauce. My original recipe calls for mostly dried morels and for venison medallions, but this time I made it with tenderloin and fresh morels.
It is such a good dish. Nothing overly innovative — the combination of Port wine, venison, morels, demi-glace and butter has been around a century or more — but so satisfying with bread and red wine.
Finding those morels also made me feel better about posting the best dish I’d made with the morel mushrooms I’d received from Earthy Delights: Whole morels stuffed with my fava bean puree.
The dish is crazy simple. Make the fava bean spread first, then pipe it into large morels with a plastic bag with a corner cut out. Coat the mushrooms in a little olive oil and bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Slice with a very sharp knife (the mushrooms will be soft) and, if you happen to have them around, garnish with borage flowers and some smoked salt.
The bad news is we ate all our morels in that one sitting. The good news is Holly and I are headed to Seattle this week to go mushroom hunting again — this time with a real mushroom expert, Langdon Cook of Fat of the Land. Will let you know how we fare!