Morel mushrooms are a spring delicacy. They refuse to succumb to commercial growers’ demands, so they must be hunted in the wild. This past Saturday, I went to the Mansfield Mushroom Festival in Mansfield, Indiana to do just that.
My family and I made the hour and a half drive toward the hilly forests that were supposed to be home to these little brainy-looking fungi. I did my research on what to look for and what to avoid. Morels are hollow, unlike some similar-looking toxic species. Their caps attach in a certain way, unlike some poisonous impostors. I knew we needed to cut them, not pull them, so that they would come back year after year. We had gloves to grab them, knives to cut the stalks, and mesh bags to hold our bounty. We had water and snacks to sustain us on our voyage.
There were guides to take people out to the areas where these prized mushrooms were growing abundantly. You paid a nominal fee for the assistance, but these mushrooms can go for $50 plus per pound. There was a contest for the mushroom hunters, and they had some of the biggest mushrooms found so far on display, including one that nearly filled a gallon-sized bag. Unfortunately, we didn’t get there early enough to go on the guided hunt, but we were determined to find something. My wife used her charm to find out which direction the hunting party went, and we set off walking in that direction.
We continued along a gravel road over a couple hills and around a bend until we saw a path leading into the forest. In the light filtering through the sparse leaves, we scoured every location we saw that might be hiding our prey. We saw some fungi that looked like Enoki mushrooms on the forest floor peeking out between some leaves. We also saw some dry shelf-like fungus growing on a dead log. I spied some fiddleheads, though not enough to gather a meal.
Despite our best efforts, our hunger overcame our desire to continue the hunt, so we headed back to the festival to find lunch. We arrived at the row of vendors that you see at every festival. We found barbecue, sausages, funnel cakes, lemon shake-ups, and one house-shaped stall with a very long line. A small sign read “The Mushroom Shack.” We waited in line and got some sandwiches and a large basket of deep fried morels. The deep fried fungi were crunchy, tender, and a little chewy. The flavor was earthy, a little bit muddy, with a touch of sweetness as you keep chewing. The sandwiches were little more than plain white bread with some of the aforementioned fried ‘shrooms. Dollar for dollar, the basket of morels is a much better deal, though still pricey at $10.
Having satisfied our immediate hunger, we spent some time browsing the craft vendors. Many vendors, of course, had morel-themed wares: morel-topped walking sticks, t-shirts asking “Got ‘shrooms?”, and rubber morel replicas of all sizes.
Above all of this was the nearly unintelligibly fast-talking auctioneer, offering up bags of morels brought by local hunters. Having struck out in the woods, I had to get my hands on some. All I could see was clear plastic bags of mushrooms held up with no time for inspection or weight estimation. A few bags went by, selling for around $30. Then I entered the bidding, going back and forth a few times on a few bags, giving up many times as the price went above my budget. Finally a decent-sized bag came around, I opened the bid, another hand went up, I raised mine again and got it for $24. I gathered my treasure, and showed it around to the family. Having acquired what we came for, we headed back to the car to return home.
We came up empty in the woods, but had a great time overall. We are definitely going to return next year, earlier, to take advantage of the guided hunt. You could probably find morels closer to C-U, but the all-encompassing morel love of this festival is something any mushroom lover can appreciate. Get there early, get some fresh morels, and enjoy a rare opportunity to enjoy a treat you won’t find in a grocery store.
Wild Spring Burger Topping
I wanted to cook up these morels with slightly more reverence than a quick deep-fry application. I had some ramps in the fridge from the previous week’s sale at Prairie Fruits Farm, and I knew the two would go well together. Despite the hefty price tag, I had very few mushrooms to work with. With the meatiness of the ‘shrooms, and the weather turning warmer, I knew what I had to do.
- 5 oz. morel mushrooms, quartered top-to-bottom (substitute any wild mushroom, or oyster mushrooms)
- 5 ramps, sliced (substitute a clove of garlic and 2-3 scallions)
- 1 1/2 T butter
- Heat the butter in a small saute pan.
- Toss in the mushrooms, cook while stirring occasionally.
- The mushrooms will let off some liquid. Continue cooking until it has mostly evaporated.
- Add the ramps, cook until the greens have softened, about 45 seconds. If you don’t have ramps, you will need to cook the garlic & scallions longer.
- Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Since my grill was acting up with the high winds, my burgers were not as good as usual. It didn’t matter though, the mushrooms really were the star of the meal. Unlike the deep-friend specimens we ate at the festival, these sauteed mushrooms had no muddiness about them. Their flavor was intense, nutty, earthy — hard to describe. My daughter, who turned her nose at the fried fungi, loved these. The morels didn’t shrink as much as most mushrooms do when you cook them. Despite their delicate appearance, they have a very meaty texture which stood up to the burger quite nicely.