Morels can’t run, but they can hide

Published 1:31 pm Saturday, June 4, 2011

By John Brewer

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Barry Beck might call looking for morel mushrooms “amateur hour” because they’re so easy to identify, but the president of the Minnesota Mycological Society can’t deny their popularity.

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“They taste really good. They’re one of the best-tasting mushrooms out there,” he said recently at the tail end of the metro area’s spring morel season.

The morel — named the state mushroom in 1984 — starts popping up in forests, fields and yards in southern Minnesota in early May and creeps north throughout the month, enticing scores of searchers to brave wood ticks for a taste. Part of the allure is just getting outside after a long winter, hunters say, and part of it is finding something free of charge that sells for up to $60 a pound in grocery stores.

But this year, finding the elusive morel has been hit or miss.

“More miss than hit,” Beck said.

During a recent meeting of the Mycological Society at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, members blamed a spate of cold, wet conditions for the tough hunting conditions this year. Morels tend to pop up in abundance when the weather turns warm and wet, they said.

But exactly when the time is best is still up for debate.

At the society meeting, members talked of searching when the lilacs bloom, while some said it was too late at that point. Another member said the corn in the fields needs to be a couple of inches high for morel conditions to be right. Others said oak leaves need to be the size of squirrel ears to find morels.

“They’re elusive and funny things. You can try to predict them, but they may be coming up someplace you didn’t expect them,” said Ron Spinosa, another society member.

Most agree that it takes perseverance — and patience — to get on their trail.

Michael Herrick of Ply-mouth said he was skunked his first three years of hunting morels.

So he started reading, talking with other hunters and reading some more.

So far this year, he’s turned up 30 pounds of morels.

“I’ve been pounding them,” he said, “but I’m not going to tell you where.”

He might not say where to go, but recent society forays — trips into the woods to look for morels – have taken dozens of members to White-water and Frontenac state parks south of the Twin Cities.

But plenty of people find the mushroom in the metro area, too.

Reports on blogs and online chat rooms and from first-person accounts this year show morel finds in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Roseville, White Bear Lake and White Bear Township – and likely many undisclosed points between.

Searching for the mushroom has increased in popularity, Beck said, as evidenced by the society’s record membership of about 400.

He said the “locavore” movement — eating food that is local and organic — is a big contributor to the rise in mushroom hunters, too.

“It doesn’t get more local than going to the woods, pulling it out of the ground and eating it,” he said.

Beck described the mushroom’s flavor as “woodsy, nutty and earthy. Like the French talk about wine and terroir” — the flavors imbued by geography and climate — “morels taste of the forest.”

Bob Niemann, 43, of Andover was out looking near East Bethel and found four dozen.

“I go out as much as I can — probably three to four times a week,” he said.

Why go out so much?

“Because I like them,” he said. “I like frying them in butter.”

Maddy Papermaster, 69, of May Township said she started looking for mushrooms years ago when she worked for the highway department in St. Peter.

“All the guys would go out to work and come back, saying they found all these morels,” she said. “But they wouldn’t share.”

Now she heads out with her husband on a four-wheeler near their home to search.

“And guess what? I’m not good at finding morels,” she said.

At the mushroom meeting, she brought along a few jars of homemade rhubarb jelly to trade for mushrooms. Nobody brought any to the meeting, though.

“They’re really good-tasting. I don’t know if I would say ‘earthy’ – it’s a much more bold mushroom taste that’s very likable. It’s the kind of mushroom where you’ll eat a whole plate,” she said.

Beck said identifying morels is incredibly easy — they’re spongelike in appearance and hollow inside when cut open — and can easily lead to an interest in finding summer and fall mushrooms like chanterelles, porcini, black trumpets and sulphur shelf.

“We call it a gateway mushroom,” he said.

Spinosa said there’s no easy way to sum up the attraction to the morel.

“Why do people like morels? They are really a delicious mushroom. It’s real delicate. It’s a nice flavor. It’s just kind of the mystique of the thing. Put all that together and it’s kind of like a treasure hunt.”