Monday, May 11, 2009

Maddening Morel Hunt

morel photo - copyright 2009 Diane Korling

About a week ago, my friend Diane Korling, edible wild plant officiando, and I drove out to Palos Heights to join a hunt for morel mushrooms. The hunt was sponsored by a local foodie organization and we were thrilled to be included. Morels are the yummiest mushrooms I've ever tasted and they are hard to find. So a hunt with a seasoned guide was too good to be true.

It was an hour and a half drive early on a Saturday morning, much earlier that I would have liked. As we pulled into the nature center parking lot, we realized an argument had broken out.

It seems that the foodie group had not obtained permission to hunt on the property and the park ranger was up in arms. He was surrounded by 40 people holding baskets and knives, ready to cut down every morel in sight.

It only made matters worse when the foodie group leader blurted out that they had been harvesting mushrooms there for 6 years and no one had ever said anything before. She reasoned that it must have been because they came on Sunday when no one was on duty. The park ranger began to shake and turn red. He was about to explode.

Diane and I didn't wait around to see what happened next. We drove to the nearest Starbucks.

But the idea of morels missed never left the conversation. Morels appear only in the spring. Diane, ever the naturalist, says "when the red oak leaves are as big as mouse ears." And for days, we had been imagining them sizzling in butter.

We tried to figure out where we might find some morels that were not on park land or behind a cyclone fence. We pulled out several maps and found a likely area that featured oak in the name.

We drove to there - oh yes, I'm being very secretive like all good mushroom hunters - and took a walk in a meadow full of spring beauties into a copse of oak. All the right signs, but no morels.

Diane and I drove the hour and a half back. Next spring, we said, maybe next spring we'd have morels and fiddle head ferns for breakfast.

Arriving home, I saw my neighbor George who claims to have had morels in his backyard. I have to take his word for it. I've never seen, or for that matter tasted, his morels. He asked how the hunt went.

I tried to make light. Hunting morels is like golf. A good walk spoiled - if you don't find any.

Four days later, I was walking out to my composer to dump kitchen scraps and I couldn't believe my eyes. There growing between the bricks in the path was a mushroom, a very distinctive looking mushroom.

I ran across the street and made George stop what he was doing and come look. He got down on his hands and knees and looked the mushroom over carefully. He pronounced it a morel, though a very old morel. Probably at least 3 days old.

We looked around and there were two more equally ancient morels behind the composer. Morels in my own backyard!

I called up Diane and she said she too had morels in her backyard. She hauled out her mushroom books to give me the Latin name.

As I was listening to her read the descriptions of shaft and cap size that might help me determine what variety of morel I had, I was gripped by a sinking feeling.

The elusive morels were actually taunting me. They were most likely blooming in my backyard on Saturday - while I was out looking for them some 50 miles away!