In the world of gourmet cuisine the mighty morel is a much-desired delicacy. The distinctive mushroom is considered by many to have the best taste of all the wild fungi. With a limited growing season and specific geographic requirements it’s about as finicky as it is delicious, which explains its hefty price tag of $50 a pound and higher. Nearly impossible to grow commercially, it’s instead found by foraging in the woods in the spring.
I was introduced to morels at an early age. At the time I didn’t realize what a treat they were. I grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, and my grandfather would hunt for them. It wasn’t until we moved to the Indianapolis area when I was a teenager and our ready supply disappeared that I knew how fortunate I had been.
Disclaimer: I was invited to the Morel Dinner and Hunt as a member of the media, and Eagle Ridge provided accommodations, miles of hiking paths and oodles of serenity. And lots, and lots of calories.
I also didn’t realize how hard it is to find them, until Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa showed a group of media members at their Morel Media Hunt. The event invites media to participate in a morel-themed visit including dinner, lunch, and hunting for morels. The resort is nestled within The Galena Territory, a 6,800-acre semi-private resort in northwestern Illinois which boasts prime morel hunting grounds – for those who know where they hide.
The team at Eagle Ridge includes expert morel hunters. Chef Randy Hoppman has been with the resort for 36 years and the Executive Chef for the last 13 years, so he’s had time to scout out the best spots. The evening before our dinner he was out until 3am foraging for the massive amounts of morels that we would end up consuming during both dinner and lunch.
I’ll cover our exquisite meals in Part II. But first, the hunt.
When we checked into the resort we were each provided with a morel hunting kit: baseball cap, mesh bag, and tick spray. The mesh bag purportedly helps to spread the spores through the forest once you’ve inserted your prize. Even though that’s largely a myth, the team at Eagle Ridge plays along and makes sure we’re all supplied with them.
The baseball cap and the tick spray, however, are flat-out necessary. Morels grow in the woods. Ticks live in the woods. Ticks like to get out of the woods by hitchhiking on unsuspecting foragers. Even with the tick spray I found a couple of the little buggers on my clothes. Fortunately I followed Eagle Ridge’s advice to wear light-colored clothing so I could see them before they traveled too far.
Finding morels takes a keen eye. Despite their distinctive shape and honeycomb texture they’re camouflaged. The sneaky suckers are generally found near dead elm trees whose bark is peeling off, but they can also be found by dead ash trees, in the grass, in open areas, under May Apples, covered by leaves – you can begin to see the difficulty here.
Once you’ve found one you might expect to find several. It’s a dream of mine to come upon a whole grove of these “dry land fish.” Rays of sunshine will burst through the clouds as angels sing in the background and I gather up my bounty.
Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work that way. The first year I found a couple; last year I didn’t find any; this year I won the jackpot with a total of five. Frankly, though I would love to have scored four or five pounds like the gentleman I overheard later that day at Galena Brewing Company, I was happy just to enjoy a beautiful morning walking in the woods.
Spending that time straining my eyes, stepping gingerly through fallen branches and dead leaves, and searching grid-by-grid has given me a whole new appreciation for the mighty morel mushroom. There’s a reason it’s so expensive. It’s not an item you can grow in bulk and harvest. Hunting the elusive fungus is like going on a savory egg hunt, but you don’t know how many, if any, prizes have been hidden.
If you’d like to try your hand at hunting morels there’s an Illinois forum on morels.com. However, don’t expect anyone to tell you where they actually find them. The first rule of morel hunting is you don’t talk about morel hunting – and no one will ever share their secret spots!
Coming up next in our four part series of our Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa Visit: our exquisite morel dinner and lunch.
Into The Woods at Eagle Ridge