This is a very exciting time of year for Missourians and Kansans. The annual adrenalin rush revolves around a fungi. Yes, a mushroom, but not any mushroom — the morel.
People will spend dozens of hours tracking down morels. Chefs will spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars purchasing morels. And I will come home with more ticks than morels in my efforts to join the feeding frenzy.
Alix Daniel is with Missouri Department of Conversation. She’s also the vice president of the Kansas City chapter of the Missouri Mycological Society. In other words, she’s a mushroom expert.
I asked Daniel why all the hubbub about morels?
“A lot of it is tied to family tradition that goes back generations. It’s also the first mushroom to pop up, so it heralds in spring,” Daniel explained. “Morels are easy to find if the conditions are right and you know what you’re looking for. Plus, morels taste awesome.”
She added that this could be an outstanding year for hunters.
“Everything leading up to the season has been absolute perfection: the amount of moisture in the soil, the cooler temperatures followed by warm, sunny days — just perfect,” Daniel said.
Daniel is expecting several weeks of prime morel hunting as long as the temperatures don’t plummet.
Local morel forager Chad Tillman also likes the way the 2019 morel season is shaping up. He has been hunting them since he was a teenager.
“This winter has provided a lot of snow that helps saturate the ground. The last three winters we’ve had under average precipitation. Also, the fact that it stayed colder longer actually helps as long as we keep getting warm and sunny days,” Tillman said.
Like all morel hunters I’ve encountered, Tillman has his own theories on when, where and why to head into the forest in search of the elusive morel.
“I’ve learned a lot over the years about foraging for morels and other mushrooms. The location is important, the temperature is important, and the timing is crucial,” Tillman explained.
He will be covering those and other secrets in a series of guided hunts he’s calling “The Dead Morchella Society,” named after one of his favorite movies, “The Dead Poet’s Society.” Morchella is the scientific name for true morels.
“A lot of people feel that giving out locations or tips and tricks is against the unwritten rules of hunting for these amazing delicious mushrooms. But, for me, I love the opportunity to teach people. This will be a perfect way to get people interested in learning how to get out on their own,” Tillman said.
Hunts will take place on selected days and times. Each hunt will be three to four hours. Tillman said he can’t guarantee morel success, but if the hunters follow his advice, they will be successful in the future.
For more information on the hunts, go to The Dead Morchella Society’s Facebook page.
And, if you really want the full fungi experience, Tillman will be hosting four seven-course dinners of the Dead Morchella Society, with two separate seatings on May 5 and May 12 at Freshwater Restaurant on Southwest Trafficway.
Happy hunting everyone. I’m putting on the tick repellent right now!
About false morels
For more fun fungi facts you can head to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website (www.mdc.mo.gov), where I found this useful passage.
“There are at least three species of morels in Missouri. All are hollow-stemmed mushrooms emerging from the ground in the spring, with a somewhat conical cap/head covered with definite pits and ridges, resembling a sponge, pinecone, or honeycomb. In black and yellow morels, the bottom of the head is attached directly to the stem. In half-free morels, the bottom half of the cap hangs free from the stalk. In all cases, the stems of true morels are completely hollow.”
Then I read this on the same site.
“Don’t confuse true morels (Morchella spp.) with false morels (Gyromitra spp.), which can kill you.”
That sounded ominous, but Daniel says she doesn’t think it’s a life or death matter, though she certainly takes the issue seriously.
“I personally don’t think false morels look anything like real morels, but they come up at the same time, so that could be part of the issue,” Daniel shared.
Daniel said there are families in the Ozarks who have been eating false morels for generations without any problems, though she certainly doesn’t recommend that for the rest of us. One way to spot the difference: False morels are not hollow.
For more about all things fungi, check out www.momyco.org, which has information on classes covering all sorts of mushrooms. Daniel said there’s at least one new class each month, and the group hunts for all types of mushrooms year-round.
Dave Eckert is a longtime Kansas City food and beverage journalist. He was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons. Follow Dave’s eating and drinking experiences on Instagram at @eatsanddrinkswithdave.