Cooking Fresh Spring 2012 Issue

Wild Mushrooms: Join the Hunt

By Dani Lind | Photo By Jim Klousia 0

We Wisconsinites are just plum loco over the hunt for morel mushrooms. The morel season does come about a half a year after deer hunting season, after all. By then maybe we just really miss the act of hunting. I know people who spend hours on the hunt for morels every day for a month, taking precious time away from work and family, and they don’t even eat them. They just sell them or (gasp!) give them away. What’s up with that?

But beyond the hard-core hunters, the really cool thing about morel hunting is that folks with very different backgrounds and socio-economic levels are all out there braving ticks and multiflora rose thorns every May. A quick Google search will yield blogs and forums full of pictures of every type of person with a big grin posed next to an even bigger morel. You’ll see a morel propped against a really expensive bottle of French wine and then a morel leaning on a can of Bud Light. You’ll see them in risotto or stuffed in tenderloin or coated in beer batter going into a FryDaddy.

So why all the hype over morels? There are other local mushrooms available in the spring, both cultivated and in the wild. My shiitake logs always have their heaviest flush during morel season, and I’ve found piles of delicious oyster mushrooms on dead stumps in late May. Shiitakes and oysters are a fraction of the cost of morels at market yet just as tasty. Is it because morels are so distinctive and cute? So ephemeral? Is it because it’s so fun to search and search and then see them pop out like an Escher drawing where before you saw only leaf litter? Is it because we’ve been hunting them for generations? Or are we just stir-crazy after the long winter and need an excuse to get outside?

I think all mushrooms are pretty darn fascinating. What we think of as mushrooms are actually the super short-lived fruiting bodies of a much more elusive, long-lived and sometimes gigantic network of underground mycelium. If the mushroom is like an apple, then mycelium is the apple’s tree and roots. The part we eat only exists to produce and release microscopic spores, the “seeds” of fungi. When the right conditions exist, the spores grow into mycelia under the surface of things. Sometimes this growth lasts for generations— even thousands of years—and sometimes over very large areas. In contrast, some mushrooms are no taller than a pin, and some only last for a couple hours.

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