I wonder if the species designation elata refers to the elated feeling one gets when they find a black morel. Indeed, the morels rank among the most prized edible fungi. Where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, this mushroom appears rarely, a treat to find. More common in areas where it snows in the Winter, the black morel notoriously prefers disturbed or burnt pine forest, fruiting in the Spring after the first thaw. California micophiles often make pilgrimages to the Sierras in the late Spring, especially to recently burnt or logged areas. Morels grew plentifully in Yellowstone Park after the huge fire in the early '90's, likewise in the Shasta Trinity forest near Mt. Shasta after the fires there. Lore tells of French farmers burning down their private forests in hopes of stimulating a flock of morels.
The specimen shown above gave me quite a surprise, growing in some new redwood mulch next to the public library in a Silicon Valley suburb - no snow, no fire, just a bit of light rain and one large lonely morel. Luckily the maggots don't seem attracted to morels, and old specimens such as this still prove delicious. I just wish I could find more without driving four hours to the mountains!
Morels are difficult to see, but easy to identify. Hollow inside, with a pitted cap and smooth white stem, they have a deep musky aroma reminiscent of sweat. The black morel shown above, Morchella elata, is more common here in the west. Elsewhere the most common variety is Morchella esculenta, with a tan or creamy white cap. The most important distinguishing feature of the morel is its pitted cap, which sometimes resembles an old eaten corncob.
One poisonous mushroom, Gyrometra esculenta, has earned the term "false morel" because of its slight resemblance to the black morel; however the cap of Gyrometra esculenta is smooth and deeply infolded (somewhat like a brain) while the cap of a morel has deep pits, with no large wrinkles or folds. The Gyrometra contains a very carcinogenic and potentially lethal chemical (MMH, or monomethylhydrazine) that resembles one of the main ingredients in rocket fuel. Cooking appears to evaporate the MMH and render the gyromete safe to eat, but only when cooked in an open pan with proper ventilation. I don't recommend it. Although a knowledgeable mushroom hunter would never mistake a morel for a gyromete, morels should also be cooked thoroughly before eating. If eaten raw, they can cause indigestion.
When cleaning a fresh morel, always cut it lengthwise and check for slugs and pill-bugs. Remove the inhabitants and rinse with water (the mushroom, not the bugs.) You can simply sautée them in butter, add white wine, a pinch of flour and some cream for an unbeatable morel cream sauce! Morels are also one of the best mushrooms for drying, and the liquid reserved from their reconstitution makes a heavenly broth. I definitely need more chances to practice with this mushroom.