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Daniel Neman: Stalking the elusive morel mushroom

Daniel Neman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

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"Shhh! Be vewy quiet. We're hunting mowels!"

Elmer Fudd is right. Morel season is almost here. That means probably more people than you think will soon be donning their camouflage gear and heading out into the woods to hunt the elusive mushroom.

I'm not kidding about the camo gear, by the way. Morel hunters can choose between at least two different caps that feature both forest camouflage and an image of a morel on it. One of the caps features a stylized American flag on the bill, and the other features the morel and a length of barbed wire.

The barbed wire presumably represents ranchers' efforts to keep the morels from wandering away. And the camo, of course, keeps the alert and wily mushrooms from seeing the hunters as they stalk their prey.

Morels are the king of mushrooms -- at least in this country, where truffles don't usually grow. They are highly prized for their intense flavor (though not nearly as intense as, again, truffles). Eating one morel is rather like eating a whole bunch of other mushrooms at once.

But there is a cult of morels that is not attributable to taste alone. Morels are popular, and so eagerly hunted, precisely because they have to be hunted. You cannot grow your own morels; they will only grow where they want to grow.

Which explains the hunting part. Morels are not hunted so much as sought.

They can be hard to find, but it's easier if you know where to look, said Brad Wildermuth, who runs the website

"A lot of people find them around elm trees. Old apple trees are popular. If you get down into the southern regions you tend to find them around tulip trees. It kind of varies, but a lot of people hunt for trees, which leads them to the mushrooms. Other people hunt with different philosophies," Wildermuth said.

Morels tend to grow in the same place, year after year. When morel hunters find them, usually in wooded areas, they rarely tell anyone else where they can be found. There are only so many morels to go around.

Wildermuth lives in western Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh. He lives near a 1,000-acre forest, and he has permission from the owner to hunt for morels there. Even in such a large area, he only knows of two places where he can reliably find the highly prized fungus.

And the morel season is short, too; they grow for only around four or five weeks a year. Depending on the weather, this part of the country should begin to see them in early to mid-April.


That's where Wildermuth's site comes in the handiest. As morel-hunters start finding their prized prey, they post online where (a general area, not specific) and when they found them. That way, other hunters can see when the morels have come to their area.

"I always refer to it as migrating. ... They migrate north. In upper Michigan, Wisconsin, their season will end at the end of June," he said.

Along with their scarcity, the only problem with morels is that they are mushrooms, and like a lot of mushrooms, some mushrooms that look like them are poisonous.

"Typically, the false morels are solid. The morels you can eat are typically hollow. I always tell people, 'If you aren't certain, take your morel to someone who is certain," and also to do your research," Wildermuth said.

What drives Wildermuth to look for them is the thrill of the hunt, the opportunity to be outside on a beautiful day. The ones he gets he usually gives away to his parents.

And what do they do with them? Wildermuth said most people fry them, and his website suggests many different ways to do that.

I say balderdash. Cut them into bite-size pieces, saute them in butter with onions (or, preferably, shallots) and garlic, add some white wine, reduce until it thickens, add heavy cream and simmer until it is the most heavenly sauce you've ever tasted in your life.

Serve it on pasta. Serve it on steak. Heck, serve it on an old shoe. You will know instantly why morel hunters go to all that trouble.

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