Tastes like spring: On the hunt for morel mushrooms
By Ben Gruber
We just finished up our first meal of morel mushrooms, and even after a year’s wait, they were every bit as succulent and satisfying as we remembered. It is tough to beat the delicate, woody flavor of these wild mushrooms, and the whole family looks forward to May knowing that there will be morels in the skillet. Add in some of the asparagus spears that are poking out in the garden now, and the flavors of spring are starting to make a meal.
In the three years now we have been at Bear Creek Ranch, I had looked and looked and was yet to find a morel. Last year we feasted on a giant hen-of-the-woods and some oyster mushrooms, but I came to the conclusion that our crazily heavy clay soil there would not grow a morel.
Luckily for me, my parents’ place is in morel mushroom heaven. Just east of Spring Green, in the hills bordering the Wisconsin River valley, the soil and terrain frequently make for a bumper crop of morels. These wild mushrooms are prized for their flavor, but their unwillingness to be cultivated leads to a competitive and short-lived harvest season.
With a few nights nearing 50 degrees, I figured there were mushrooms to be found, if only enough for a few meals. Friday night we headed down for the weekend, and on Saturday morning we headed out to the south-facing slopes where the sun had warmed the soil up the most and started scouring the leaf-littered forest floors.
A few dead elm trees checked revealed no mushrooms, and I started to question if I was too early. We kept at it since a few friends sent me pictures of their prized finds earlier in the week. The next spot was perfect: a gently sloping south with plenty of sunlight and two elm trees that had died within the last five years. I spotted a few perfect golden yellow morels poking up through the leaves.
I gently pointed Addy in the right direction, letting her “find” them. She could not have been more proud of her find, displaying it for her mother and me before placing it into the mesh bag. She continued to search the ground, coming up with a few more while her mother found a few handfuls on the other side of the tree.
We managed to gather about 2-3 pounds from this single spot, and it was the only place that we found any. It is still a little cool, and the best days are ahead.
We made a stop at a favorite limestone spring that feeds a small trout stream and gathered a few handfuls of fresh, wild watercress. Poking up on the shore right next to the stream were a few sprigs of mint to top off this foraging trip. It will mix nicely with some of the wild ramps growing in our woods at home.
Unfortunately, I do not have a wild turkey to cook up. I managed to get into the woods during my first season for all of two hours one afternoon. I almost punched my tag, with three tom turkeys gobbling nonstop from about 80 yards away, but a farmer checking fields on his ATV gave the birds a different idea as they closed in on me. They spooked and flew off, not destined for my oven.
I guess I might have to see if the crappies have moved in to spawn in the shallows. Maybe we can fry up a mess of fish soon too. It is hard not to love being outside right now.
Ben Gruber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.