BONNERS FERRY, Idaho _ Last year's forest fires are now producing bumper crops of morel mushrooms.
Scores of local pickers are heading to charred areas looking for the tasty specimens, which poke out of the forest floor like wrinkled, golden thumbs during the warm days of early May.
"They're yummy," said Boundary County resident Heidi Mastre, as she searched the burned slopes above Myrtle Creek recently with her family. "These children are going to be so black when we're finished."
The family had filled two pails during a morning search of the National Forest 10 miles west of Bonners Ferry. Some of the mushrooms were destined for a quick trip to a buttery fry pan. Others would be dried and eaten later, Mastre said.
Forests in North Idaho and northeast Washington have been largely ignored by the hoardes of commercial pickers that descend each year on public lands in Montana, Oregon and Western Washington, U.S. Forest Service officials say. Most of the pickers are locals with a passion for the nutty, earthy-flavored fungus.
But more people than ever are now out searching for morels, according to Forest Service officials and longtime local mushroom hunters. Many are drawn to high-profile burned areas, such as last year's Myrtle Creek and Togo fires, said Kelly Chadwick, a skilled Spokane picker who also supplies a limited number of wild mushrooms to local restaurants and gourmet markets.
"In the past, if you went to a burn you might have run into a couple of others," Chadwick said. "It's getting very competitive."
Morels are the only family of mushrooms that fruit prolifically in response to wildfire, said David Pilz, a morel expert and botanist at Oregon State University. Experts still haven't unraveled the mysterious, ancient relationship between morels, fire and western forests, he said.
Most believe the post-fire bumper crops are a survival response: the mushrooms put out a mass of spores because their habitat is being destroyed.
"That's not completely clear," Pilz said. "The whole realm of figuring out what's going on in nature in forest soils is just very recently being addressed by science."
For mushroom pickers, the taste is all that matters. Last weekend there were reports of hundreds of pickers in the burned area around Myrtle Creek, including an entire school bus loaded with pickers. Idaho Panhandle National Forest spokesman Dave O'Brien said the area is being watched closely because it serves as the watershed for the city of Bonners Ferry.
"We really don't want to attract the pickers into the ... watershed," O'Brien said. "That's an especially delicate area."
Although North Idaho and northeast Washington have not traditionally produced bumper crops of morels, the region is prime terrain for many other edible species, Chadwick said. Many experienced pickers avoid the beaten path and look for less-known varieties.
Chadwick is particularly fond of king boletes and giant fairy clubs. Priest Lake is an area particularly rich in mushroom diversity.
"This is a pretty incredible area," Chadwick said.
For many pickers and chefs, morels remain king of fungi. Local restaurants serving morels include Paprika, Luna, Mizuna and Cannon Street Grill.
"They're little treasures," said Shilo Pierce, executive chef at Luna in south Spokane. "We love them. They have a beautiful look and a great flavor."
Pierce tries to keep at least five pounds on hand at all times during mushroom season. This weekend is peak season for the local morel crop and Pierce ordered an extra 20 pounds for the restaurant. Pierce said he only buys from expert pickers.
Serious fungiphiles order morels straight up -- gently sauteed in butter and eaten unadorned, or served atop toast squares. Pierce likes to pair them with fattened goose liver, or foie gras, in a compound butter served atop beef tenderloin.
"I'm pretty fond of that right now," Pierce said. "You have that earthy mushroom flavor with the buttery foie gras."
Larry Evans, a self-proclaimed morel maniac and mushroom broker from Missoula, said this season is average in terms of mushroom production. The drought conditions are hindering the crop and shortening the season, he said.
But the dry, harsh conditions might be creating particularly tasty mushrooms, Evans said. Morels, he added, are one of the few mushroom species that can be dried and stored. Their taste only improves with age.
"I collect morels like other people collect wine. There's different vintages," he said. "You can really taste the difference between different years. This year has certainly put up a lot of strong, woody flavored ones."