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Locals on the hunt for morel mushrooms

BY CHASTITY DILLARD | APRIL 12, 2012 6:30 AM

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As the Sun started to set, friends Abbey Moffitt and Stephanie Nelson wandered off the trail in the woodsy area near Hawkeye Court.

The two University of Iowa seniors were in search of a delicious, spongy delicacy — morel mushrooms — possibly hidden under the dead trees and plants.

"[The mushrooms] are camouflaged," Moffit said as she gently kicked through the earthy debris on Wednesday. "They look like the same colors as [the brush], and they are in the dirt, and so your eye can't really see it unless you look really hard."

 

Moffitt and Nelson are not alone in their hunt for the rare mushroom. Each year, many nationwide flock to wooded areas and comb alongside creeks in hopes of discovering the edible fungi, which pop up in mid-April. This year, Iowans began an early morel season, with the first sightings in mid-March.

Donald Huffman, a retired Iowa Central College biology professor and mushroom expert, said he suspects the warm Iowa soil temperatures allowed the mushrooms to sprout earlier.

"In Iowa, the winters are usually harsh," he said. "And by spring, it's time to get out into the woods."

At the beginning of the season, mushrooms range from 2 to 3 inches. The season only lasts a few weeks, and by the end, the fungi can grow from 5 to 6 inches.

"The biggest one we ever found [in Iowa] was 4 pounds, 4 ounces and growing in the dirt floor of a tool shed," he said.

Mushroom experts said morels can sell from $20 per pound to as high as $80 per pound. Iowa's morels are typically sold for $30 to $60 per pound.

Morels are one of two main types of mushrooms, often nicknamed "cup fungi" because of the crator-like holes that make up the fruiting body, Huffman said.

Brein Osborn, the owner of Anything But Green Gardens in Vinton, Iowa, said the difficulty in finding the mushrooms makes the hunt all the more interesting. Osborn said she has been picking morels since she was old enough to walk.

"I used to live by Lake Macbride, and my parents would take me [mushroom hunting] because they said 'I had a better perspective,' " Osborn said. "I could see closer to the ground."

She said she has been cultivating the mushrooms in patches on her property and a barn for the past three years.

"I have some usually before and after everyone else," she said, and she sells them to local restaurants and grocery stores.

The fascination with morels have led many to try to grow their own for more than 300 years, Huffman said.

And even though it is possible now, the yield is still unpredictable for farmers.

"The difficulty is you may find as many as 15 in one patch or 1,500 in another," he said. "You don't find many willing to take a gamble on that."

But a few are willing to take that chance because of the morels' sought-after meaty taste. There are many recipes for consumption, but the most common is frying.

"Many people like to use an egg wash, cracker crumbs, flour, and seasoning," Osborn said. "Then roll it and pan fry — I'm not real big on that. I think it takes away the actual flavor, and it's an excellent mushroom."

Moffit said she prefers grilling her mushrooms.

"The taste? Delicious," she said. "It's kind of like a [beef] steaky taste. That texture, not like rubbery but kind of chewy."


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