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News Detective: Morel Hunt

Morel mushroom.
Morel mushroom.
Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service, www.forestryimages.org

Even if you don't like mushrooms or aren't particularly interested in studying them, there are still plenty of opportunities for appreciating the humble fungus. Morel mushroom hunting is one option.

The allure of morels has inspired Eldon Burow and Peter Leach to scour the woods of southern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin every spring for more than three decades. Leach has even written a book about morels, which are famous for being absolutely delicious and extremely challenging to find.

The conditions have to be just right for morels to grow. The ground has to stay moist for long enough during the spring, and the mushrooms are highly sensitive to temperatures and soil conditions. The morel season is brief, and hunters have to time their hunts carefully.

Over the years, the men have perfected their search technique. They know some areas where morels usually appear, generally during the last 2 weeks of May. To start with, they first look for dead and dying trees, and they start with south-facing slopes early in the spring. Once you find one, they say, it becomes easier to find others.

Some years yield jackpots. In 1969, for example, Leach and his wife picked 1,200 morels on their first day out. Recent years have been much less productive. Even so, the men love the thrill of the search, which can involve walking as far as 20 miles in a single day and crawling on hands and knees to peer into the underbrush.

They also love being outside, just when the weather is starting to turn. "It's sort of a celebration of spring," Burow says. "You're out in the field. The leaves are budding. The air is clean." It's like a ceremony every year, he says.

Perhaps best of all are the rewards at the end of the day. Once the mushrooms are counted, sorted, and weighed, the feast begins. The classic recipe for morels, the men told me, is to sauté them with butter, cream, lemon, salt, and pepper. They recommended serving the whole mixture over toasted slices of a plain baguette. Burow gave me a bag of dried morels so I could try it. So I did.

The taste is something I can't even explain. The mushrooms were earthy and chewy, fragrant and rich, savory and sweet, all at the same time. The whole thing melted in my mouth. I ate slowly to savor the special meal.

"If I had to choose between picking and eating, I'd rather hunt," Leach told me when we met. "The real pleasure is in the hunt."

I'll have his portion, please.—Emily Sohn

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