Right now, and in the coming weeks, from Northern California to Alaska, commercial and amateur mushroom hunters will be scouring hills that were ravaged by fires last summer and fall. Their prey? Morel mushrooms.
"Sometimes we call it 'chasing the burns,' " mushroom enthusiast Kevin Sadlier says, in search of the black morel mushrooms that grow in the springtime after a forest fire.
He's exploring Lake County, Calif., a couple of hours northeast of San Francisco. Last September's Valley Fire – one of the most destructive in California history – changed the face of these hills, once thick with pine and fir trees.
"It looks like a moonscape with trees, he says. Joining Sadlier is fellow forager Connie Green, who says morels are opportunists.
"It's as if fire is taking a gigantic eraser, and wiped life out. Where cleansing fire has made this rather sad, with black sticks in their landscape, morels love this," Green says.
But Green knows that finding the right conditions doesn't guarantee success. It's easy to mistake tiny burnt stumps or rocks for morels. Their textured caps are long and cone-shaped, like dark honeycomb.
"That's part of their charm. We find maybe it's like a bad boyfriend or girlfriend that you keep going out and being shamed by. It's a bit like that with morels," she says with a laugh.
Green is not just a forager. For decades she's run a business supplying wild mushrooms to high-end Bay Area restaurants, and she co-authored the book The Wild Table. She says there's a long history and appreciation of different types of morels in Europe and in the Midwest. Here, before morels became a fine-dining staple, long before European settlers came, Native Americans collected them.
The three of us walk through the forest, heads down, when suddenly Kevin Sadlier spots a black SUV covertly parked off the road and says, "We've got company," likely a fellow mushroom hunter. Sadlier and Green both laugh, knowingly. When we move to another spot, and come across two other foragers he knows, that's when we find a cluster of morels poking out of needles covering the ground.
"Bingo!" someone yells. I gasp, and Sadlier says, "We're in the promised land. They're everywhere!" I see grown men chase each other to a morel cluster, and we spend hours scanning the hills.
We fill a paper grocery bag with morels: a respectable haul, but really, just for home eating. These foragers believe the real mother lode would be higher up, inside the boundaries of Boggs Mountain State Forest, which has been closed to the public since the fire. They're pretty frustrated that they're restricted from this public land.
"Arbitrary and capricious," Sadlier calls that decision.
Not surprisingly, Jim Wright, of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, disagrees. He's co-managing Boggs Mountain State Forest, where he says 80 percent of the forest's trees burned. His top priority is removal.
The black and brown hills of the forest look like something out of a dystopic science fiction film. On an active logging site, equipment with mechanized arms and saws fells dead trees, strips off burnt bark and moves as much as 100 truckloads a day out to mills. Even where logging isn't happening, Wright says, the forest is dangerous.
"The tops will start breaking out of these trees," he says. "The limbs will start breaking off and coming down with just the slightest breeze," and burned-out stumps and roots create holes in the ground.
While Wright knows many morel hunters are familiar with forests and are eager to get on the land, he says, "We can't interview each person to find out if they're qualified, see if they have a hardhat, if they're familiar with hazards of forest. It's just not practical."
Before the fire, Joe Guardado hiked Boggs Forest every day. He's spent many winters foraging pounds and pounds of porcini mushrooms in the forest and around the town of Loch Lomond, where he lives. It's a weekend getaway for Northern Californian Italian families, and they revere mushrooms here. Guardado introduces me to a friend, Mike Giusti, who built a shrine in his front yard that, from a distance, looks like it honors the Virgin Mary. Up close, it's clear that it's a porcini made of stones.
Guardado says he doesn't forage mushrooms for money. He swaps jars of dried porcinis for hunted pheasant or duck, or wine made by the families who vacation here. Guardado is a caretaker, and he knows them all.
People like Flora and Romano Marcucci. Romano points to Guardado and says, "They call him the King for Mushrooms."
In these parts, Guardado is called the King, or Mushroom Joe. He's showing the Marcuccis where edible wild mushrooms pop out of little mounds of leaves in a yard. They're coccolis, white mushrooms as big as my hand. Flora says she'll slice the mushrooms and cook them simply in olive oil with garlic, pepper and salt. "Let it fry, get nice and crunch. Delicious!"
They also unearth one deadly mushroom.
"Oh, that's a death cap," says Mushroom Joe, looking at its pimply skin.
Romano Marcucci draws his finger across his neck, ominously, but all three are lifelong mushroom hunters who know what to avoid.
Mushroom Joe and I spend the afternoon in a couple of burn areas hunting for morels: no luck today. So, he'll keep looking. But he skipped porcini season last winter ... his heart just wasn't in it. He says he feels a tension between his mushroom-hunting passion and his love of these now-scorched hills.
"It's what you loved and now it's all black," he says. "It's not so bad because right now we're looking for mushrooms, so I don't have to look up that often. I'm looking down at the ground, like you're blocking it out of your mind that it's not there. It's sad. It's just real sad."
Because, Mushroom Joe Guardado says, chasing the burn for morels hurts a little, if it's in your own backyard.