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.

Some mushrooms are very predictable and only grow at a certain time on a certain part of a certain tree. Others, like the wild oyster mushrooms, are flexible and will grow on just about any dead or wounded tree in a wide variety of conditions over a long season. Some are easy to cultivate in an artificial environment, like the common button mushroom or any of the wide variety of fungi you can buy a kit to grow in your basement.

Morels are sort of predictable. They definitely prefer dying elms and tend to show up in greatest numbers in May during wet springs. But they’re full of surprises. Sometimes you’ll find them in a suburban lawn or apple orchard with not an elm in sight. Sometimes you’ll find them in April or June. Sometimes conditions will be textbook perfect and you’ll check a spot every day for weeks and not find a one.

And sometimes you’ll stumble onto a mother load. One year, after hours of hunting in my back forty with no success, I was walking dejectedly home past a perfectly healthy big elm and almost stepped on a tan six-incher. Whoa! Slow down! I got down on my haunches and found a veritable forest of big ones. They popped up in a 360 degree circle about 10 yards around the giant elm. I didn’t know the elm was dying, but the morels did—a few years later that tree was totally gone.

Mycologists have been trying to cultivate morels commercially for years with little luck. Experts think morels are the product of a complicated synergistic relationship with dying elm trees. Supposedly, as an elm starts to die, its sap runs into the ground and activates the spores. The spores then take up to two years to develop the mycelia that will eventually produce and sustain the morels we pick in the spring. They don’t all flush out at once; they are very sensitive to temperature and moisture fluctuations that make microclimates—even of a few yards—important.

Don’t have the morel bug yet but want to catch it? The Morchella genus has many different species, but the most common ones in Southern Wisconsin are the black morel and the common yellow morel (also called tan). Both feature a hollow stem with their classic honeycomb cap. Learn to identify them by watching one of hundreds of morel hunting videos online, go to your local library or bookstore, or go to Muscoda’s 30th annual Morel Mushroom Festival this May 19th and 20th. In addition to a market where you can buy and sell morels (one year they sold 2,000 pounds!), there’s morel art and crafts, an antique tractor pull and carnival rides, a parade, helicopter rides and fireworks.

If you want to skip all the morel hysteria, save some cash or avoid getting bit and scratched in the woods, try shiitakes or oysters. Both can be found at farmers markets. There are several varieties of early shiitakes you can grow on logs in a shady spot in your backyard or in a shed.

Oysters can be cultivated on logs at home or easily (at least compared to morels) found in the wild in late spring through fall—just look for bright white patches of them on dead wood on an overcast day. Whether you prefer tromping through the woods or “farming” in your backyard, or prefer your ‘shrooms with wine or beer, fried crispy or gently simmered in butter and placed delicately atop an arugula and watercress salad, mushrooms are at the heart of a Southern Wisconsin springtime.

Important Note: Wild-harvesting mushrooms can be dangerous—toxic mushrooms are out there. Learn how to identify what you’re picking and always eat with caution. In addition, always treat the land you’re wildharvesting on with respect. Don’t disturb the soil. Always cut mushrooms with a knife or scissors rather than pulling, and never pick more than you will eat. Leave some behind to repopulate.

Try Dani's recipe for Galette with Wild Mushrooms and Ramps.

Dani Lind spent 10 years as the produce manager/buyer at the Viroqua Food Co-op and now owns and operates Rooted Spoon Culinary, a catering business that focuses on local, seasonal foods. Dani loves to grow and preserve her own vegetables, herbs and fruits and help her husband raise grass-fed steers on their farm near Soldiers Grove.

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