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Russ Schlievert could hardly believe his eyes and his good fortune. Last week, the co-owner and one of the cooks at Reed Point's Hotel Montana lucked into treasure - a washtub full of morel mushrooms.
"I've never had that many mushrooms. I've never seen that many mushrooms," said Schlievert, who bought the bounty from a local mushroom picker. All washed and cleaned, the fungi weighed in at 36 pounds.
Morel mushrooms, considered a delectable treat by mushroom aficionados, have been popping up in numbers not seen for several years. Last year, Schlievert could only buy four pounds. This year, he's already bought 60 pounds.
"After years of drought, all of this rain has surely enticed them to spring up," Schlievert said.
Dr. Cathy Cripps, an assistant professor at Montana State University who specializes in mycology, the study of fungi, confirms Schlievert's assumption. But, she adds, the timing of the rain was just as critical as the moisture itself.
"It's an absolutely exceptional year because we've had all this rain at just the right time," she said.
In fact, it's been such an exceptional spring that George Ostwald of Columbus managed to bag somewhere between 300 and 400 pounds in four days of hunting. His largest specimen towered over a pop can. He estimated it weighed half a pound.
Ostwald has hunted mushrooms since he was a child, but this marks the first year he has sold them. In the past few weeks, the miner who moonlights as a morel picker, sold morels to restaurants between Billings and Big Timber, including Schlievert's Hotel Montana. With his going rate at $10 per pound – on E-bay they were bidding up to $30 a pound - he hauled in $3,000.
"It's a little side thing to do this time of year if you can get into the hot spots," he said.
There's a mystique about morel mushrooms that comes alive each spring, just as the convoluted yellow and brown fingers begin pushing up through the detritus. Whether it's their unique taste and texture, the brevity of their season or the fact that commercial growers haven't been able to capture the flavor of the wild morel, mushroom hunters anxiously await their eruption. And once a 'shroom hunter has found a hot spot, he or she guards that secret like a fisherman guards his favorite hole.
Schlievert laughs when he talks about a group of Reed Point retirees that venture out each spring in search of the delicacy. At first each man forayed alone, keeping his respective hunting ground secret. But eventually the word got out: they'd all been going to the same easy-access spot.
Ostwald, too, declined to reveal the exact location of his hunting grounds. But he did offer one clue. A boat comes in handy, he said.
"They're along the river bottom in the brush, so you're doing a lot of moving bushes," he said. "Sometimes you even have to get down on your hands and knees. It's like a big kid's Easter egg hunt."
Burn areas – especially the first and second year after the fire - also make prime hunting grounds.
Cripps knows exactly when the morel season is coming on. Her phone starts ringing just before they're about to appear. Then it stops abruptly.
"The silence is deafening," she said. "That's when I know they're all out picking."
Besides her phone barometer, Cripps knows that morels typically appear in mid-May, a rule of thumb that's pretty much the same from Michigan to Montana.
Yellow or blonde morels - Morchella esculenta – are the first to poke through. They tend to grow under the cottonwoods along waterways, usually beginning in mid May. Depending on rainfall, their season typically wraps up by early June.
But that's about the time black morels start to appear. Black morels, more prevalent in burn areas at higher elevations, where lodgepole pines mingle with spruce and fir trees, are not black from soot. In fact, they are a different specie of morel - Morchella conica – whose season can run into July.
As morel season hits full swing, Cripps warns excited hunters to take time to discriminate. One type of false morel, known as "verpa," can also be found growing under the cottonwoods now. While not deadly, eating them can cause a reaction in some people, she said.
"People should know that they're out there," she said, adding that some grocery stores have mistakenly bought, and then sold, verpa, thinking they were morels. The two mushrooms can be distinguished by the way the cap attaches to the stem. On verpa, the edge of the cap hangs free from the stem like an umbrella. On morels, the cap comes around and attaches to the stem.
"So, when you cut a morel in half, you have one big hollow space," she explained.
But even morels, particularly black morels, can cause reactions in some people. Each year, Cripps hears about a few who have had a reaction after downing too many black morels while drinking alcohol.
Cripps also cautions against eating morels, or any wild mushrooms, raw. Cooking helps break down compounds in mushrooms that make them easier to digest, she said.
Lastly, mushroom hunters should be discriminating as they pick. One old, rotten morel can taint a whole batch, she said. If a mushroom looks old, Cripps gives it a good sniff. If the odor's a bit "off," she pitches it.
But, when the morels are fresh, there's nothing quite like them. Schlievert said his favorite way to prepare morels is quite simple: fry them in butter with a little salt and pepper.
"You don't even need garlic," he said. "Why ruin the flavor of the mushrooms by adding garlic?"
Mike Harmon, the head chef at Walkers Grill, likes morels best when cooked in a port cream sauce.
"It combines the sweetness of the port with the earthiness of the morels," he said.
Walkers Grill can go through 60 pounds of morels a week. During the off-season, he relies on a vender out of Vancouver. In season, he tries to connect with local pickers, a less consistent source. Some days Harmon's supply runs dry.
"I'm trying to find someone to bring some in today," he said Friday.
As he waits for his stock to be replenished, the delectable fungi may soon be saying adieu.
"Now it's starting to dry out," Cripps said. "If it doesn't rain again, the season starts to wind down."