By charring morel mushrooms at his new restaurant, Birdsong, chef Chris Bleidorn not only evokes their earthy flavor — he tells their origin story. Morels are the phoenix of fungi, flourishing in the ashes of coniferous trees after forest fires. That means last year’s disastrous West Coast fire season has had at least one upside: A bumper morel crop.
“It’s hard, because it’s a terrible tragedy when these fires hit,” says Iso Rabins, who teaches foraging classes with his organization ForageSF. “But for morel foragers, it’s a bit of a blessing as well.” Foragers, says Rabins, have been having great luck this season. “Last year people were getting two or three [mushrooms]. This year, they’re bringing back pounds.”
When last fall’s disaster is this spring’s entree, chefs like Bleidorn want to acknowledge rather than ignore that fact. At Birdsong, Bleidorn stuffs his slightly burnt morels with lamb, topping them with green almonds and a symbolic sauce of allium ash and activated charcoal.
“It’s a very bittersweet season,” says Brett Cooper, who serves a morel dish on his menu at Aster. “Because burn morels grow from the remnants of fires, it’s a reminder of what happened, but [also] an homage to the land.”
Morels, whose scientific name is Morchella, are so highly valued because they’re foraged, not farmed: Their symbiotic relationship with trees is tough to replicate on a commercial scale. As to why they fruit after fires, Kabir Peay, an assistant professor of biology Stanford, calls that phenomenon ”a little bit of a mycological mystery.”
“Fungi will often reproduce either when things are really good, or really bad,” says Peay. “In a lot of cases when their resources are all used up, they’ll create new mushrooms to move on... to find new resources to eat.”
But it could also be just the opposite. Maybe morels enjoy the burn, feeding on new compounds created by the death of their host trees. And with fires sterilizing the area, morels could seize the moment of “abundant resources and few competitors,” Peay suggests.
Ian Garrone of local mushroom purveyor Far Wast Fungi agrees that this year’s morels have been exceptionally abundant. But he clarifies that other environmental factors beyond burns, like temperature, precipitation, and elevation, are important to morel growth.
The sites of last fall’s North Bay fires, for instance, aren’t a source for most commercial morel foraging operations like his. That’s because they’re too low in elevation: Morels typically grow at 3,000 feet or above, especially after March.
Garrone’s pickers, then, are plucking their morels at higher elevations than those of the Napa, Sonoma, and Lake County burn areas. Higher burn areas, like in Mendocino and the Redwoods, are producing some morels, but even there, “it’s not really on a commercial level.” Yosemite, by contrast, “was banner for us.”
After Yosemite, Garrone’s pickers are moving north to Shasta, and the season will progress up the coast all the way to Alaska — lasting perhaps through August in a longer-than-usual season. Now, at the midpoint of the season, Far West’s farmers market stands and Ferry Building store are selling the mushrooms for $16 to $18 a pound. They’ll go up in price from there.
To consumers, Garrone recommends carefully rinsing morels in lukewarm salt water before cooking them. After all, they’re typically dirty, covered in debris and ash.
Where to forage for morels on local menus:
- Lord Stanley — English pea tart with fresh curds, lemon, and morel mushrooms
- Nightbird — Flannery beef filet with morel and ramp
- Birdsong — Morels stuffed with Sonoma lamb and topped with green almonds
- Sorrel — Green asparagus with morel, vin jaune, and smoked trout roe
- Rich Table — Beef tartare, morel mushroom duxelles, pickled garlic, cured egg yolk
- Octavia — Green garlic soup, morel, black olive, crème fraîche, lemon agrumato