M is for morel mushrooms, May and mmm-good, as in morel-leek soup, morel burgers and mounds of morel pasta.
It's also for the mania and magic that morel hunters exhibit as they stalk the dappled forests of Southern Oregon, using "pattern recognition," as master morel maven Don Struble calls it, as he kneels down to cut a veritable mob of seven tasty morels, all growing in a one-yard wide hollow in the woods near the Greensprings area east of Ashland.
"They like to hide," says Struble, unfolding his knife and lopping them off at ground level. "Shadows hide them, too. You can walk through an area in one direction and see nothing, but you come back through the same area a few minutes later and there they are. You have to come from all directions."
The veiny, dun-colored, brainy-looking morels can look a lot like an inverted pine cone, or a coal left over from a fire and maybe just a clump of dirt — and they're often lurking out of sight beneath a fallen branch.
They like south-facing slopes, seem to prefer living under firs, rather than pines, and don't like too much direct sunlight, says Struble. They seem to come out most in early morning or late afternoon, he adds, when it's 60 to 65 degrees.
"Some people have the eye for finding them, some don't. Your eye has to click on that first one," says Struble, "then you can pick out the rest."
There's a psychological component, too, says Sarah Hight, who works at the Green Springs Inn, which celebrated morel season last weekend with Bluegrass music and all manner of morel dishes on the menu.
It helps, Hight says, if you don't search for morels with your knife drawn.
"They don't like that. And when you find them, remember to say thank you."
Hight cooks her morels in olive oil or folds them into an omelet.
"They're more meaty than any meat I've had," she says.
Struble likes them fried in butter with oregano and onion, then applies the mixture on top of a steak.
Morels bloom most profusely a couple weeks after the snow melts, when there's been a good rain followed by some warm sun, which is pretty much what's happened in the region lately, says Green Springs Inn owner Diarmuid McGuire.
After hunting morels for 15 years, McGuire sums up his morel wisdom like this: "No one understands morels. They have their own logic."
But morel hunting is a skill you can acquire with practice, says his son Padrick McGuire. You find them starting in late April, going through the month of May and, depending on the weather at higher elevations, into early June.
"Everyone gets very excited up here on the Greenspring when the season starts," he notes — and this year is turning out to be a better than average year.
Diarmuid McGuire pays $10 a pound to local morel hunters. And under the skilled hand of Green Springs chef Barbara McHugh, they end up in all kinds of dishes, including cream of morel soup, pastas at $18.95 and cheeseburgers with morels at $10.95.
In past years, buyers have set up tables in the Green Springs Inn and bought them for up to $20 a pound, then shipped them off to gourmet restaurants in New York, Chicago and Tokyo, says Diarmuid McGuire. Then the supply will get too great or demand will fall off and the prices will drop to $10 or less, he adds.
"It's a profession with a subculture and there are people who go into the woods to pick morels for months," he says. "They can make $200 to $400 a day if they know how to find them and have a buyer."
The Green Springs Inn, on Highway 66 about 25 minutes east of Ashland, is open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, except Wednesdays and Thursdays.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.