“Is it a brain or is it deer poop?” asked my companion as we hunted for prized morel mushrooms in the Payette River Mountains of central west Idaho. We started out the day optimistically with plastic shopping bags to carry our mushroom loot.
Our guide explained that it was “greener” to have mesh bags to carry your mushrooms so they could drop spores, release critters, and breathe as you walked along. But he said that as long as we shook the mushrooms off after picking them we would be boosting the morel mushroom crop of 2009.
About a half hour into the hike with not a mushroom between my hunting companions and me, I knew I had to adjust my expectations. So I decided to extinguish my competitive edge and enjoy the sounds and smells of the hike. At first I wondered aloud if the white noise I was hearing was rushing water or a highway. When guide Dave Williams answered, “Yes.
There’s a stream right over there.” I chastised myself for being too urban. The smells of fresh, musky bark, and sunlight splashing light and dark across the woodland floor was pure delight. I had to say a silent prayer of thanks for being right where I was at that very moment.
We had spent the previous night at Idaho’s Tamarack resort. Located about 90 miles north of Boise, Tamarack offers onsite recreation as well as custom adventures galore. The morel mushroom hike was one of many to choose from. We were all pretty pumped to find morel mushroom booty and it was the best day weather–wise of our trip – temps reaching about 70º.
According to Williams, the wily morel might just as easily be found by the side of the road as deep in the forest. Morels like places that have been burned a few years back, the ashy soil making them happy. The key was to look for Trillium flowers, delicate little things with petals turning from white to lavender as they mature. Where they were, morels might be found… but I couldn’t see any.
We were encouraged to get down in a comfortable crouch position to become level with the ground. Say, a squirrel’s eye view. I was crouching; I was looking, but still nothing. Then Australian hunting “mate,” Monique, scored, two beauties in the same place. This too, Williams explained was typical. I found a few more brains.
These are gnarly looking mushrooms that can really make you sick, they don’t look anything like the friendly gnome morels that woodland fairies might use to landscape their homes. Sepia in color with oval tops, all folds and crevices, held aloft by a rather stumpy, cream-colored leg, morel mushrooms were there for the picking, but I couldn’t find any.
Several of us found poop…deer poop, even bear poop. I learned that bear poop is a big glop while deer poop is like rabbit pellets, only bigger. Elk leave poop “trails” and their prints are deep and rather big, “Unless that was a moose track,” someone said. It was amazing what we were finding instead of morels.
Why were we so pumped to discover morels? Most of us had dined at the aptly named Morels in Tamarack’s main lodge the night before. Chef Gary Kucy, adorned the table with baskets of morels to give us a look at the next day’s prey. He set before us a whole stuffed morel atop Truffled Potato and Spring Pea Buerre Blanc.
The stuffing had fontina cheese with of touch of horseradish. The morel itself was dipped in tempura batter and fried. The combination of tastes and textures was sublime.
Coupled with Idaho’s Sawtooth, Snake River Valley Reserve Merlot 2003, we were in culinary heaven. When I asked how he dreamed up such a creative dish, he said he wanted to do something that featured one whole morel and battering and frying them was one of the best ways to eat them.
Like many chefs we had met while eating and drinking in this region of Idaho the past couple days, Chef Kucy had an easy smile and a laid-back attitude. Maybe it was all that fresh air, white water and mountain biking that Idaho has to offer.
Where Are They?
So I knew what morels looked and tasted like but why couldn’t I find any? About three quarters of the way through our hike, Nancy hit pay dirt. She literally found $40 in the dirt. She thought it was trash and being a conscientious Idaho native, she picked it up. It was two wadded up $20’s. We kidded her, saying she should just buy 40 bucks worth of morels and give up the hunt!
Selling at about $14 per pound in stores, she’d get several dozen. Later, Nancy and I were talking about taking our kids to a concert. We were patting ourselves on the back for being cool moms while sharing a priceless experience with our kids and then Nancy’s search bore real fruit. She yelled, “I found one!” and pinched it up quicker than a four year old can play leapfrog.
A small part of me wanted to tackle her for her mushroom. When she showed me where she had found it, I couldn’t believe the Darwinian magic of how it blended in with its environment. How does anyone find these things?
According to Idaho’s leading newspaper The Idaho Statesman, this year 1000 full-time mushroom pickers, mostly from Cambodia, Laos and Mexico have pitched tents in the Payette and Boise National Forests. Two million acres of this land had burned in 2007 producing prime picking spots for commercial mushroom hunters.
By the end of our hike, our group of about 16 had harvested a little over a half dozen. Like me, the men had struck out. I explained that relying on caveman theory, that is as it should be. After all, women are gatherers, men hunters. (But what did that say about me?) Chef Kucy said he occasionally cooks bounty caught and/or gathered by Tamarak guests.
Sadly, our slim pickings wouldn’t be worth his effort. Guide Williams advised soaking the morels in salt water to eliminate bugs and then eating them as soon as possible (they can be stored in the fridge under a damp paper towel for a few days). For six mushrooms I wondered if he was serous. Obviously he was serious about educating us and I appreciated his professionalism.
If You Can’t Find them Eat them
If I couldn’t find them, I could certainly eat them. Besides Chef Gary’s Whole Stuffed Morel, I had the pleasure of watching Chef Brent Rasmussen, of Riccabona’s make ground lamb and goat cheese ravioli with morel mushroom sauce at the Sun Valley Food & Wine Festival. Riccabona’s interior featured interesting paintings that reminded me of either peeling Roman walls or abstract harvests. Like the food and wine, the restaurant’s paintings were a contemporary nod to Italy.
Watching Chef Rasmussen wield the pasta dough, stuff, and cut the ravioli, I had to ask myself, “Is it worth it?” Once I tasted it, the answer was unequivocally, yes! Homemade ravioli is a particularly ambitious culinary project. You could either go to the restaurant, take home the chef, OR I think flat noodles with seasoned ground lamb smothered in creamy morel mushroom sauce would be divine and easy enough to make on your own.
As an aside, I’m not sure if Hemingway hunted for something as unmanly as morels, but keep in mind that his grave is located in Ketcham and visiting it makes a nice morning walk from Sun Valley’s main lodge. Ski resort of choice to Hollywood grandees since the 30’s, Sun Valley is a classic.
In his ravioli Chef Rasmussen used organic grass-fed lamb from Lava Lake Ranch. Located southeast of Sun Valley in the Pioneer Mountains, Lava Lake occupies 7,500 acres permanently protected by conservation easement with an additional 60,000 acres of certified organic pastures and rangelands. This eco friendly company prides itself on conserving the land while running a profitable sheep ranching business–100% of those profits fund land conservation and restoration work.
About 5000 sheep start grazing at 2,500 feet with mostly Peruvian herders shepherding them over open plans and step sagebrush. By June or July they have reached 12,000 feet and some are ready for market. President, Michael Stevens, says that selling direct to end-users was either inspired or crazy, but it has proven to be successful. “It is globally cool right now to consume local produce and we’re delivering exceptional quality lamb direct to Idaho chefs and grocers and they love it,” says Stevens.
The next step for Lava Lake is eco tourism and recreation. This may include visitors going out with the herders, spending the night in herder wagons (the one I saw was like the Ritz Carlton of covered wagons) and learning about the local eco system and its preservation.
The Lava Lake folks gave us a preview of what one of these tours might look like. Picture an “around-the-camp-fire” scene from one of your favorite western movies.
Situated in a narrow valley clearing surrounded by low mountains, sagebrush and wild flowers we sat down to a lunch of lamb sausage, lamb chops, biscuits, baked beans and brownies.
The lamb sausage was lean, dense and full flavored with hints of cumin. Coupled with several mustard options, I had a whole new appreciation for lamb. Food and wine columnist, Vanessa Chang was digging into the beans. She said,
“They were super soft with lots of great flavor that can only come from a long time in a Dutch oven over low heat. The chunks of bacon didn’t hurt either.” The smell of campfire smoke, herder covered wagons, hay bails, cowboy coffee and, guys in ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots lent an air of authenticity to the scene.
If you’re eager to get close to sheep, but not sleep with them, you might try the “Trailing of the Sheep Festival” held in Ketchum and Hailey in mid October. The weekend event honors the rich heritage of sheep ranching offering everything from “Cooking with Lamb” to a “Sheepherders Walk” to a “Sheep Folklife Fair.”
Fifteen hundred sheep are “trailed” from their high summer pastors to lower winter grazing and they parade right down Ketchum’s main street on their way. Idaho has the largest Basque population outside of the Basque country. Basque dancers, Peruvian musicians, bagpipers and drummers join the procession. For obvious reasons, dogs are not allowed!
Finding morel mushrooms while visiting Idaho may prove to be a crapshoot, but finding a good Idaho wine is a sure bet. Idaho’s own slice of Provence, the Snake River Valley Wine Region, is located at the heart of the Snake River Canyon Scenic Byway.
Rest assured, you do not have to be a wine aficionado to enjoy a day in Idaho’s wine country. The bucolic setting of fields and orchards surrounded by the Owyhee Mountains makes for a very romantic day of sampling wines and/or drinking in vistas. Idaho vintners and growers seem most proud of their Syrahs and Viogniers.
I’m partial to white wine and after tasting several Viogniers, this varietal is my new favorite. The ones I liked in no particular order are Cold Springs Viognier 2005, Cinder Viognier 2007 and Parma Ridge Voignier 2007.
During our tour, one vintner said, “The whole trick to making wine is to pick your grapes when they’re ripe – ninety percent of your job is to make sure your grapes come at the right time – then get out of the way and don’t screw it up.” If only finding morel mushrooms were that simple!
Visit the Skillet Shaped State
As we say at Gonomad, “plan ahead” and go to www.visitidaho.org to get acquainted with this skillet shaped state that is Idaho. Here’s a short list of what I recommend:
8th St. Wine Co. Café and Wine Shop, One of America’s top 15 “Most Amazing Wine Experiences” says “FOOD AND WINE” Magazine. Creative, regional fare with both large and tapas size plates.
Chef Lou’s at 8th Street, Said to be haunted, this local favorite is home to the famous Idaho Ice-cream Potato. “Little Nothings” – these are bread crusts spread with jam, rolled up and deep-fried in pancake batter – are complimentary and with Lou’s strong coffee they are the best way to break your fast while in Boise.
Boise Culture to Absorb:
Visit the Basque block and museum for an overview of Basques history and culture. Learn why and how they migrated and adapted to this part of America. The Basque Market www.thebasquemarket.com offers Tuesday night Tapas, cooking classes and Basque wine and food. Try the anchovy stuffed olives.
Old Idaho Penitentiary State Historic Site.
Looking for something out of the ordinary? This museum is macabre but interesting.
Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, a human rights education center and memorial to Anne Frank and other human rights leaders.
Best for White Water:
Family owned, The Cascade Raft Company has 90 days to make their living on the Payette River and they run a near perfect rafting operation doing so. The whole family, including grandma and little ones, is hands-on. In the winter they migrate to Chile where they run a kayaking school. Their dedication and enthusiasm for white water sports is awe-inspiring. The rapid riding adventure itself is a scream.
Sun Valley Dining:
For a slice of Tuscany in Ketchum escape to Cristina’s restaurant. (208) 727 4499. Self proclaimed Toscanaccia, “Tuscan troublemaker,” Cristina Ceccatelli says she is definitely not a chef. Her school of thought is to, “make simple dishes with fresh ingredients you have.” Her goal for Cristina’s is also simple: “to re-create an Italian sense of fun and camaraderie, celebrating life with a good meal in good company.” Cristina’s is delightful, the dishes simple and delicious.
The Roosevelt Grille is an affordable, bistro-style dining joint. If available, taste the Shepard Farms Vine-Ripened Tomato Salad.
For home-style cooking plop down at The Kneadery, 260 Leadville Avenue
(208) 726-9462. The kids will love the moose heads and antlers decorating this place and who can pass up menu choices like The Goldilocks Pancake Sandwich, or The Grizzly Bear breakfast. Now that’s Rocky Mountain.
Wineries of Idaho
Snake River Cuisine Tours offers guided tours. Each tour includes 3-4 winery stops as well as a visit to a local culinary place of interest. The area can be a tricky to navigate so a guided tour is an excellent way to reap the fruits of the day.
For a list of wineries, their contact information and visiting hours go to, www.idahowines.org
Cathie Arquilla is a stylist and mom who lives in Pelham NY.
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