Hunting the elusive morel mushroom
When my foodie friend Doug insisted on a spring visit to Minnesota, I was floored: “You wanna fly all the way from Chicago to hunt mushrooms?”
“Yeah. Morels taste better than truffles.”
“But that means hiking through . . . nature,” I replied.
“C’mon, it’ll be fun.”
“What’s so fun about poison ivy?”
Nevertheless, I agreed to his request. Morel mushrooms are prized for the rich, earthy flavor they impart to meat and rice dishes. Unfortunately, they only grow in the wild. For three short weeks in May, these culinary treasures burst through the forest floor like pale, tan Smurfs. Mushroom hunters of France use trained pigs to unearth truffles. This luxury doesn’t exist for morels; they must be hunted with the naked eye.
To ensure success, we needed a guide. I called my buddy Laura—the only “shroomer” I knew: “Hey, can we tag along the next time you go morel hunting?”
“Uh . . . it’s been really dry,” she hedged. “Might end up being a bad season.”
Shroomers are notoriously territorial, but I knew Laura’s weakness.
“If you take us, I’ll give you a quart of homemade limoncello.” Seconds passed in silence. Should I up the ante?
“Okay,” she resigned, “but don’t expect me to share what I find.”
Sheesh! It’s like panning for gold. We waited for prime conditions: lilacs in full bloom, rain followed by a warm spell . . . Jupiter aligned with Mars.
In early May, mushroom chatter finally hit the blogs, and we drove to Whitewater State Park. Doug wore rugged rock-climbing pants and boots. Laura donned a sporty tracksuit and sneakers. I pulled on my custom-designed “anti-nature suit.”
I didn’t care.
At Laura’s first secret site, we spritzed on insect repellent and plunged into a thicket of trees—and mosquitoes. I lagged behind, hacking at the wet underbrush with a snake stick. My bee hat made it difficult to see anything.
Laura circled a dead elm.
“Dang it!” she grumbled. “We’re too late for these babies.”
Two fat morels sat at the base, disintegrating into boogery slime.
So we motored farther down the road. Doug picked two creeping ticks from his neck while I sat in the backseat, scratching my legs. Stinging nettle had breached my anti-nature suit.
At the second location, Laura and Doug dove into another thicket as I hacked through more soggy underbrush.
Up ahead Laura chuckled, “There you are my pretty!”
Forgetting about snakes, I scrambled to reach her. Laura knelt by a stump, parting the weeds. There stood a five-inch beige mushroom in a blaze of honeycombed glory.
Twenty yards away Doug hollered, “Shroom!”
With new motivation, I yanked off my stupid bee hat and raced to more dead trees. Over 15 minutes, I found clustering orange mushrooms, sheet-like bracken and plenty of stinging nettle but no morels.
I scratched my behind all the way to the car.
East of Elba, we bounced along a rutted dirt road. Dead elms beckoned like sultry sirens from either side. We parked and scattered in another dim, wet copse.
Laura hollered, “Shroom!” from 10 yards away, and five seconds later Doug whooped in triumph, too. I was beginning to feel kind of desperate, like the girl who still hasn’t been asked to prom.
To my right sat a rotten stump. I poked around its weedy base with my stick.
Discouraged, I squatted.
In perfect stillness I scanned the leaf litter beneath a downed branch.
That’s when I saw it . . . a mighty morel standing tall on a bed of moneywort! I plucked this treasure from the earth and yodeled, “Shroom!”
Laura and Doug stopped their search to coo over my precious fungus baby.
Having landed in a “hot zone,” we combed the glen hollering, “Shroom!” every five minutes. My heart sang! There’s something therapeutic about foraging for food in the wild. We had nettle stings, thorny scratches and mosquito bites, but we also had three pounds of morels!
For recipes and shrooming information (including how to distinguish true morels from toxic imposters), visit thegreatmorel.com.