Food Matters: From the Lake Christine Fire comes feast, according to ‘burn morel’ foragers
Trip Fantastic: Summer 'shroom events10th Annual Eagle Mushroom and Wild Food Festival, August 2-4 “A great place for people to learn about summer mushroom season,” says featured speaker Trent Blizzard. Find ID tables, seminars, a foray, wild mushroom sauté bar, kids’ class, and multicourse wild foods dinner prepared by forager chef Graham Steinruck with wine/beer pairing. Adults, $65; kids younger than 12, $35; other prices vary. Dusty Boot Roadhouse and Capitol Theatre, Eagle ACES Annual Mushroom Fair, Friday August 2, 1-4 p.m. Free fun for the whole family! Two-Day guided field foray, Starts Thursday, August 1, 9 a.m. Learn to collect and ID mushrooms in the wild with Denver mycologists, then prepare and showcase findings at Friday's Mushroom Fair $145; members, $95 Hallam Lake Nature Preserve, Aspen 970-925-5756, aspennature.org
On July 4 last summer, The “Inferno” of horror-blockbuster proportions could be seen from the parking lot of Whole Foods in Willits, crawling over Basalt Mountain beyond like an unhinged monster belching thick, black smoke skyward.
Ignited at a nearby shooting range by a pair of young adult punks playing with illegal tracer rounds, the Lake Christine Fire of 2018 decimated more than 12,500 acres of state, federal and private forestland until it was snuffed out in early September. Three families lost homes, 2,000 people were displaced during mandatory evacuations, and the blaze is estimated to have cost upward of $25 million.
While the Lake Christine Fire is by far the most devastating ever in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, Trent and Kristen Blizzard find one small silver lining: This charred landscape will soon produce thousands of spectacular — and scrumptious — morel mushrooms.
Avid foragers, technological experts and pro data-sifters, the Blizzards prefer to hunt for “burn morels,” since these particular mushrooms (of more than 20 morel species) thrive in the aftermath of fiery destruction. They call the phenomenon “wildfire promise,” and it only occurs in the West.
“I think because burn morels are four or five specific morel species that associate with conifer trees,” Trent says. “In the Cascades (of Oregon) they are most abundant. They are very unusual east of the Rockies.”
While nutty, meaty, wrinkly-cap morels are revered around the country as wild springtime mushrooms with a short growing season, the Lake Christine Fire’s lofty elevation — 6,600 to 10,865 feet above sea level — will push their peak until midsummer.
“Most morels that any chef has available will likely be from burns as they are the only species found in quantity,” Kristen shares. “They fuel the commercial market,” and cost top dollar for consumers as a result.
In early June, the Glenwood Springs-based Blizzards set out on a scouting mission to the Lake Christine Fire burn scar, which they believe is a potential goldmine for burn morels.
“There’s a lot of access, and it’s easy to explore” Trent explains, ticking off other reasons including heavy tree cover and areas that aren’t too steep. “There are still snowdrifts up at 9,000 feet. (Morels) love moisture, and there’s a lot of snowmelt seeping down the hill. Now we’ve had some warm weather and warm nights — that’s the recipe.”
The Blizzards — whose six-year obsession has spurred them to write a foraging guidebook and curate digital “burn maps” for 11 Western states, pinpointing advantageous spots to search for burn morels (see sidebar, right) — have streamlined the preparation process so that amateurs can feel confident about jumping in. Folks may purchase Colorado-only maps ($25, featuring 18 recent wildfire sites worth visiting in 2019), which includes download of the e-book.
“(Last) Friday was about where the gates would be that give us access,” Trent recalls. “We figured out how far we could drive in and park. We picked a route and walked 90 minutes into the forest. We thought 8,000 elevation was too low — spring was too far along. We went up higher, and that felt right. We checked. We found one cluster of four mushrooms early on, and it kept our head in the game for another hour. For us the idea is to go, look and see, higher and lower, keep poking.”
Spanning more than 30 square miles — about half of it in ideal mushroom-growing conditions and 40 percent north-facing, an orientation that stays cooler and wetter than the sunny south — the Lake Christine Fire burn morel harvest will likely be abundant. And, since morels are known to grow in multiple “flushes” at burn sites, foragers are less secretive about finding stashes.
“There’s something in our genes about hunting and gathering, finding little prizes in the woods,” gushes Trent, who returned to Basalt on Monday after receiving a local’s tip. “You get a little rush of excitement, and pick it. Before you know it, you’re looking for another one. You get into this craze. You lose your sense of direction, because you’re turning around and around, looking for things on the ground.”
That morels are so elusive is another draw. A foray is always a crapshoot. “You find factors that increase your success but you don’t dial it into an algorithm that works every time — especially in Colorado,” Trent says. However, “usually when you stumble into them, you get a lot.”
Another source of eternal fascination for the Blizzards is why.
“Why do these mushrooms pop up after a burn?” Trent posits. “These species of morels you won’t see for another 20, 30 years until there’s another burn. It’s probably (due to) a blend of three different theories: nutrients in the soil change or the stressed trees or it’s the heat. I don’t know.”
Exclusivity is appealing, too. The Roaring Fork Valley’s thriving summer mushroom scene is focused largely on porcini and chanterelles. “Some people hunt natural morels — everybody wants to find them — but the stars really have to align,” Trent says. “Most people find it really frustrating.”
Burn morels, by contrast, flourish in a very specific — and eerie — environment.
“Burns are fascinating places to be,” Trent enthuses, recalling the Lake Christine visit. “The ground is ashy and there’s no grass. You get a lot of black muck, clayish mud. We go in there with our dogs and they come out just filthy.”
Burn morels are also some of the easiest mushrooms to identify, thanks to a dark, honeycombed cap and pale, hollow stem. (Still, the Blizzards’ book does detail a rare lookalike species of false morels.) And, of course, burn morels are valued as a gourmet delicacy.
Trent sautés sliced morels with butter until browned, then deglazes the pan with vegetable stock. Dredging whole ’shrooms in flour for a flash fry is also popular, and the Blizzards dehydrate their surplus harvest for year-round use. As with nearly all mushrooms, burn morels must be cooked; consuming specimens raw is a surefire path to sickness.
The Blizzards’ book is full of tips for curious newbies. A few to note: Be sure to obtain a free permit from White River National Forest offices in Aspen or Carbondale. Use two-way radios and download GPS maps to devices before wandering out of service. Don’t venture out in rain or heavy wind — these elements can cause slippery conditions, flash floods, slides and falling trees. (Register for Pitkin Alert at pitkinalert.org to receive emergency warnings, as risk in that area is high.)
“When hunting mushrooms, persistence pays off,” Trent concludes. “Go with the expectation that you’re gonna have a nice day in nature, hiking with a purpose. Which is not to get somewhere, but to find something along the way.”
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