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Published: Sunday, 5/5/2013

Treasure hunters are heading for the woods

BY MARY ALICE POWELL
BLADE COLUMNIST

If you appreciate one of nature’s most revered foods and are willing to hunt for it, put on your boots because the morel mushroom season is in full swing in Michigan.

If predictions exchanged between diehard “shroomers" are true, this will be a great year for the woodland delicacy that is as much prized by home kitchen cooks as it is by chefs.

The morel is an exception to the general food supply rule that if its aficionados aren’t in the mood to grow or forage for it, they can get it in the supermarket. Wrong! Morels play hard to get and only come out of hiding in the spring. Only rarely are they sold fresh in retail markets. Dried morels are available, but they are a far cry from the fresh wild specimen with an incredible earthy taste.

Morel hunters who live and breathe the annual mission, begin scouting in early March, get more serious in April, but in May it’s full speed ahead to their favorite sites.

The pros may share a general locale of their hunting grounds, but when it comes to specifics they are tight-lipped. Looking for morels is Mother Nature’s version of hide and seek and it’s a toss up whether the finding or the eating is the more rewarding.

The experts say morels are most likely to pop up in a wooded area around hardwood trees, such as poplar, ash, and elm. They are also found near pine trees in the forest. Remember that they like moisture. A tube-shaped stem and a honey-comb cone give them a distinctive appearance that is easily spotted, but it is wise for beginners to buy a guidebook as a caution against picking a poisonous variety. The Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club recommends the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms

The wet and slow warming spring this year is believed to be just what nature ordered for an ideal harvest. The best daytime temperatures for growth development are high 60s and low 70s. Veteran hunters believe that soil temperatures between 50 and 55 degrees are perfect.

Barbie Keiser, Osseo, Mich., who with her husband Dennis, is in charge of one of three Michigan morel festivals, says the time and temperature are right now. “In the whole state of Michigan the month of May is truly morel month," she said. “The temperature has been just right for sprouting.”

Barbie said that organizing the first Osseo Heritage Day and Great Mushroom Hunt and morel competition 17 years ago was her answer to the many telephone calls her husband and his morel hunting buddies made during the season boasting their finds.

“The competition really began over the kitchen phone," she said.

For the competition Saturday in Osseo, teams were divided between the experienced and the beginning hunters. The prize? What else but a large bowl of freshly picked morels? Hunters are free to search anywhere in the area beginning at 8 a.m. and checking in with their “loot” at 2 p.m. The Lost Nations State Game preserve in Hillsdale County is suggested to beginners as possible fertile ground.

“One thousand hardy souls usually attend,” Barbie said, adding that hunters from Chicago and southern Ohio register along with the locals and that rain and bad weather doesn’t deter them.

The first step to cooking morels is cleaning, followed by soaking them in water to release any deposits in the cones. The common procedure after they are soaked and dried is to dust them with flour and sauté in butter.

Dennis, an avid outdoor hunter, goes one step further and stuffs the mushrooms with chopped grouse. To salvage every piece of broken mushroom, Barbie simmers broken pieces in butter, then strains it. The morel flavored butter is refrigerated to harden.

There’s still time to catch two other Michigan morel adventures. The annual festival in Mesick will be May 10 and 12 and will include arts and crafts. The National More! Mushroom Festival will be May 16 and 17 at Boyne City. Restaurants will feature morel recipes.



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