Call it the great morel mushroom hunt!
After a few days in Rexburg, Idaho and dealing with my very sick pooch at a local vet, are now in Salmon, ID, staying at a stunning little RV park right on the Salmon River, located in the Lemhi Range in the Sawtooth Mountain Region. This is prime rafting, salmon and fly-fishing country, along with one other surprising industry.
After a quick hook up, we met our dirty and grimy neighbors, who had just returned from morel mushroom hunting. They toted a 5 gallon bucket full of the hard to find delectables and proudly showed them off, handling mushrooms as if they were the rarest china silk. If you have not had a sautéed morel (even if you aren’t a mushroom fan) you are missing out!
Lynn and Ralph, both retired from the power plant industry, have been on the road from NM, in a Chateau E-450 towing a Jeep, since early May. They aren’t professionals, although Lynn has hunted ‘shrooms since she was very young and loves to eat them. They had stumbled across a website which mentioned this area for prime hunting and thought they’d try their luck. They have an electric dehydrator with 4 drying layers inside a round, covered bowl with a fan. They cut the 3” average mushrooms lengthwise, unwashed, put them in to dry then store in zip-locks.
Lynn rinses them quickly to rehydrate, sautés in a little butter with a dash of salt. Stir in with scrambled eggs, veggies, put on steak or just dig in. Some folks dredge in seasoned flour and fry, but purists are aghast as then one cannot savor the flavor of the morel! A word of caution- one of the older RVers ate a raw morel the other day and wound up in the emergency room getting fluids last Friday. Try a small bite first and never raw!
It is dirty business, tromping, climbing and digging up the ashy forest floor, but morels brought up to $18.00 a pound last year. Recently burned forest areas stimulate growth and are often good sites if they are also a bit moist.
Yesterday, I spoke to a couple of handsome 40-ish guys, who had detailed topographical maps and a computer- researching recent fires and plotting potential sites. These folks follow the wildfires! A man came in last night with 20 lbs. after eight hours of work- not a bad haul. The prices now are about $8.50 a pound due to a saturated market this year.
Morels can only be picked by hand and come up in the spring when night temperatures average about 50 degrees. Cut with a knife, shake to let spores fall and carry in netted bags. Be sure to leave one or two for next year. The season doesn’t last long so pros out west start early March in southern California, moving north with the weather. Here, in mountains, start in lower altitudes and move up as spring climbs.
Most of the few folks in this rv park are here because of the morel. The middle woman/buyer, Koy from California, is camped next to the park in a colorful conglomerate of tents and about 300 crates, which can fill in one day when the getting is good. Her pickers usually tent camp, too, and she knows most of them. They range in age from 20’s – 70’s and work at their own pace, some making quite a good living. It is the beginning of the season here, and she is expecting the campground to fill up with her workers within the next two weeks. They come by at the end of each work day, weigh the mushrooms as soon as possible, before they begin to dry out losing water weight. A driver will come by and pick up the mushrooms, delivering them to the company, A & K Wild Mushrooms and Evergreen, where they are sold, mostly to restaurants.
Koy buys all types of mushrooms, such as Chanterelles, Cauliflower and Black Trumpets depending on the season, some as late as November. She also buys Bear Grass and other flora to be used for greenery by florists. She and her husband, Luis, whom she met when they were both pickers, work outside, moving and living in their tents 10 months out of the year, setting up just ahead of the pickers. They have no children.
National Geographic, Forbes and several other publications have done articles on her. She invited me to her camp and was cooking something in a big pot over an open propane fired range under a tarp. It looked like hamburger and veggies- no mushrooms. I asked her if she gets sick of them and she nodded, but sometimes she’ll spot a nice looking big one and may stuff it with meat.
Met another gal who says her group heard about this endeavor, sounded like easy money, so they dropped everything for a couple of months and came out to clean up. They haven’t. It’s more difficult than they anticipated and were here three weeks too early. Koy admits most novices don’t want to listen to the experienced, do their research and don’t stick. It’s a lot like the gold rush, folks think they’re going to walk on dollars.
The mystical morel- I am not sure if they taste so great because they taste so great or because they are difficult to find. It’s a tough way to make a living, even if you are outdoors in glorious country. But, according to Ralph, it’s the thrill of the hunt along with the big bucks.
peaking of Ralph, I am going to take out their trash, volunteer to wash their rig and walk their dogs with the hope that I get a few morsels from their bucket. I guess Idaho isn't just spud country after all!