Morel Madness

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My parents own roughly 100 acres of land smack dab in the heart of Wisconsin’s driftless area, a portion of the state left largely untouched by glaciers. When I was in high school, we built a cabin on that land. I remember weekends spent sawing two-by-fours and pouring cement. And when we couldn’t stand to drive another nail, we tromped the old logging roads, exploring the deep ravine that cleaves the property in two. And this is how we discovered that our land holds a precious secret. Morels.

Morels are finicky, secretive mushrooms with wrinkly brown heads that resemble deeply pitted brains. Because they are delicious and hard to come by—two things that drive the gourmands wild—they inspire cult-like devotion. You don’t pick these mushrooms, you hunt them. And the hunt is never easy.

Type “how to find morels” into Google and you will get tens of thousands of hits. Most tips, however, have no scientific basis. Legend has it that morels grow best at the base of dead elm trees, a myth that Jon Farrar attributes to the morel bonanza that followed the die-off of American elms in the 1960s due to Dutch elm disease. In truth, morels aren’t quite so picky. They’ll grow near other dead trees too. But they do require humidity and loose soil.

Even in the best places, spotting them can be tricky. The forest floor is flecked with brown and gray and black. To find the mushrooms, you must scan the earth for the tell-tale pattern of their pocked heads. It’s a skill that my stepmom calls developing “mushroom eyes.”

Each spring, my parents host “Mushroom Weekend,” two days dedicated to hunting morels. The hunters, my parents’ friends, descend on the cabin in droves, loaded down with cheese, crackers, and gin. They drink, they laugh, they bullshit. And eventually they hunt. Since I moved to the East Coast, I haven’t been able to make it back for mushroom weekend. Last month, however, I found myself in Wisconsin for a conference. Mushroom weekend was set for May, but the fungi came early this year. We saw baskets brimming with morels at the farmer’s market, where they sell for $40/pound. Clearly the time was right. So the next day we packed up the car and headed west (Where exactly? I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you).

My stepmom got her mushroom eyes first. Witness the excitement of her discovery (and hear her cackle with delight) in the video below (apologies in advance for the shoddy camera work).

Our luck continued long after that first find. By day’s end, we had an impressive heap. Mushroom weekend was even more successful. My stepmom texted that they found 30 pounds — a new record.

Yearning to hunt your own morels? You can find tips, sighting maps and more at The Great Morel. Or perhaps seasoned hunters would be willing to share some advice in the comments section. Where do you find morels?

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Image credits: Me, me, and me.

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12 thoughts on “Morel Madness

  1. Mushroom hunting is huge here in Catalunya, Spain.

    They have TV programs dedicated to the art of seeking out the perfect fungi, as well as educating people on which ones are edible or poisonous.

    You certainly get to see the tender side of the big, burly men who carry little wicker baskets in which to place their finds, and lovingly and gently handle the mushrooms so as to keep them intact!

  2. Cassie, next to that first morel those weren’t poison ivy leaves, were they? Do morels come with a price of itching?

    AND what do you do with them once you’ve caught them? what do they taste like and what are they good in?

  3. Ann, hunting morels is a dangerous sport. You risk poison ivy, sure, but also lyme disease. By the end of the day, were were covered in deer ticks. And did I mention the prickly blackberries and buckthorn that snagged our pants and skin? Oh, and don’t forget the stinging nettles.

    When morels are fresh, your best bet is to slice them in half, fry them in butter and eat them plain (or with a cracker). MMMMMMmmmm. I now have two bags of dried morels. I used some to make risotto and I’m planning to use more to do a fancy version of beef stroganoff. They’re good in scrambled eggs too.

  4. I also grew up in the driftless area. My dad still lives there on 80 acres. When I got engaged to Jim, my dad said he’d agree to let Jim marry me on one condition: Jim had to go hunting with my dad. My dad had deer-hunting in mind. One spring day, we went mushroom-hunting. Jim proudly proclaimed at the end of the day that he had fulfilled dad’s requirement. While not what dad had in mind, he had to admit that Jim had him. Because indeed, as you say, it’s mushroom-hunting – and dad had only specified that Jim go “hunting.” :-)

    I have a great recipe for a morel-asparagus pasta in cream sauce, if anyone wants.

  5. You have to give blood to find morels. My wife and I learned to hunt them when we lived in Minnesota in the late 80s. Our record haul was two big bags of morels and 236 ticks.
    Up here in western Canada where we live now, ticks are mercifully scarce, but the morels appear the same week that the mosquitos do.

  6. Cassie, you are killing me! I’ve been stalking the morel for two years and that damn mushroom eludes me every time.

  7. I have only hunted them at the Eugene farmers’ market, which is pretty dangerous in itself. But how the heck do you get them clean? After a ton of washing, they were delicious but still a little sandy.

  8. Cassandra: Yes, I believe that there is a morel here. The Catalunya Generalitat mushroom identification doesn’t list them though (the list is rather incomplete because there are many more than listed there), but you can see how serious they are about it, if the government gets involved in the education process!

    Also – there are tours just for mushroom hunting…. http://www.gourmandbreaks.com/55/mushroom-hunting-getaway.html

    ;.)

  9. Cameron, I think you’re not supposed to wash them. My stepmom just lets them sit overnight and most of the bugs and dirt seem to fall off. (But we don’t seem to have super-sandy soil.) Everything we don’t eat right away, she dries. Once the mushrooms are dried, you can rehydrate them and all the sand/grit will come off in the water. If you want to use the mushroom water for flavor, you simply run it through a coffee filter. But none of this really answers your question.

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