Morels emerge from scorched ground to prove that few misfortunes come entirely without redemption.

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A peculiar thing happens after a Pacific Northwest forest fire.

The following spring after intense heat has ravaged a landscape, morel mushrooms emerge to see the light of day.

It’s usually the only time they appear, and it could happen any time in the next month or so, all across the Northwest landscapes burned by last summer’s record wildfires.

A favorite among edible-fungi lovers, morels will typically flourish for a few weeks and then disappear underground until the next fire brings them back.

But last year was an unusual mushroom year. When morels made a late-season flourish last fall, I went out with mushroom expert James Nowak, whose Seattle company, Terra Fleurs, takes novice hunters into prime mushroom territory to learn the basics of collecting.

The hunt took me to a scorched patch of Manastash Ridge, near Ellensburg, among badly injured pine trees, standing timber skeletons and charcoal branches.

Morel mushrooms, displayed here atop a book of mushroom hunter’s notes, tend to resemble dirty pine cones. (Jeff Layton)
Morel mushrooms, displayed here atop a book of mushroom hunter’s notes, tend to resemble dirty pine cones. (Jeff Layton)

Together with a Seattle food blogger, a young couple from California and Augie the truffle-sniffing dog, I strode the ashy hillside at a fast clip in search of delicious, nutty-flavored mushrooms.

It might serve as a preview of what morel hunters can expect in coming weeks.

 Ugly but tasty

Nowak had been keeping an eye on this burned patch of forest for months, overlaying fire data with Google maps and tracking climate information so he could time our hunt for when they were peaking.

He is like a pouncing cat when he spots a mushroom. He has a sharp eye and covers uneven terrain with the deftness of an elf.

We struggled to keep up, and he explained what to look for.

“Morels like the edges of the burned areas,” he said. Little dips in the ground under partially burned branches are your sweet spot.

I stumbled upon the first stash a few minutes later and he cut one in half, noting the honeycomb texture and hollow core.

It’s hard to put this nicely so I’ll just say it: Morel mushrooms might be the weirdest-looking food you’ll ever eat. They are something like a cross between a sponge and an elephant’s ear, in the shape of a dirty pine cone.

Soon we were off. Nowak pointed out a general direction to walk, and with air horns — for signaling — and walkie-talkies in our backpacks, we were sent to search out treasures.

The thrill of the hunt

As I rambled through deadfall, up and down gullies, I became hyper-focused on finding mushrooms. Covering miles over wildfire terrain may not sound like fun, but it was exhilarating. Remember the excitement at childhood Easter egg hunts? Well, this is the adult version of that.

Sometimes, you’ll find patches of morels only minutes apart, or you can wander for an hour in frustration until a fatty appears right under your nose.

I became numb to time. I was tired but hardly felt it. Every time I found a little cluster, a thrill grenade went off inside me.

Two hours later, Nowak sounded his horn, and our group gathered on a stream bank to examine our finds. We’d all had success. Our bags contained mushrooms as narrow as fingers, and others shaped like golf balls.

Since I didn’t know the first thing about mushrooms (and had absolutely no desire to poison myself), I felt good being with an expert. I learned that morels are toxic when eaten raw — you must cook them first. But contrary to popular belief you can’t get poisoned by merely touching them.

One of the reasons morels are good for novice collectors is that there aren’t a lot of look-alikes, so it’s hard to confuse them with poisonous varieties, said Nowak. But just to be sure, he removed a few suspect mushrooms from our bags.

Later in the day, I was alone when I spotted a fellow in dreadlocks slinking through the forest with a mushroom bag on his belt. When I told Nowak, he looked grim. “That’s the competition.”

This spot was supposed to be small enough to stay off the radar of the big operators who scour the forests to supply Seattle restaurants.

The world of mushroom hunting is cutthroat. Most seasoned hunters don’t like to reveal their favorite terrain. Hobbyists cover the same areas as the commercial outfits that pay low-wage migrant workers to sweep the mountains.

“We practice a scorched-earth policy,” Nowak declares. If you don’t pick them, they’ll just rot, so there’s no reason to leave any behind.

With all the fires last summer, this spring is going to be good for morels in Eastern Washington, he predicts, but that’s also going to attract a lot of pickers. “It’s going to be busy.”

Fruits of Our Labor

At the end of the day, each member of our sweaty, exhausted group had a lunch bag full of keepers. With fresh morels pushing $40 per pound, we could have practically paid for our trip if we’d sold them at a farmers market.

But nothing was going to keep me from a thick steak slathered with a hearty morel cream sauce and a ridiculous amount of mushrooms.

I surprised my guests at a dinner party the next night.

“Unbelievable!” remarked one friend. “Remarkable,” said another. “Those are ugly,” said the 9-year-old.

But it was a lesson in “don’t judge a book by its cover,” she later admitted. The hearty flavors hit my mouth in ways that no other food had: meaty texture with a hint of truffle oil and a smooth, agreeable aftertaste.

From now on, whenever I see a forest fire, I’m going to see opportunity rather than tragedy. Because I know gnarly fingers of deliciousness might be poking out from the ashy floor.

If you go: Safety first

Never eat a wild mushroom unless you have proper training in identification or a trained expert has identified it for you. Many wild mushrooms can seriously harm or even kill you, and morels are toxic when eaten raw — they must be cooked before eating. Even their fumes can be dangerous, so prepare them in a well-ventilated area.

• Consider joining the Puget Sound Mycological Society (psms.org), one of the premier mushroom organizations in the country. Members take part in outings, attend cooking classes and sponsor ID clinics. The weekly Monday clinics, free and open to the public, 4-7 p.m., resume for spring on April 20 at Seattle’s Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 N.E. 41st St.

Terra Fleurs offers guided collection forays when conditions are right. Day trips run $75-$275 per person. terra-fleurs.com