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Local restaurant menus feature the first mushroom of spring April 20, 2005 zwire.com
Every spring, woods and fields in Iowa are inundated with people hunched close to the ground hunting for fungus.
Mushroom hunters seek out decaying matter, hoping to discover mushrooms sprouting up from the forest floor for just a few weeks, a short-lived, home-grown delicacy.
"In the next couple of weeks, you'll see cars parked on the side of the road with people out in the woods hunting them," said Lois Tiffany, retired Iowa State professor of biology and resident expert on fungi. Most people seek out the morel mushroom, a spongy, pitted fungus that, for some reason, prefers to grow near elm trees.
The morel is the first mushroom to appear in the spring, starting in mid-April and lasting through the middle of May, depending on the rainfall and temperature. "People are comfortable with them," Tiffany said.
Even some restaurants get into wild mushroom fever, featuring them on menus in the early spring. At Aunt Maude's in Ames, General Manager Devin Beerman said his restaurant buys from a few regular farmers every year. Occasionally they'll buy from other hunters, but they tend to stick with the people they know. "When they're in season in the next week or month, we'll have guys who call us," Beerman said.
Since the mushrooms have such a short growing season and are hunted, rather than cultivated, the price for a few fungi gets fairly high. Beerman said he'll pay up to $16 per pound for the mushrooms early in the season. The price goes down to about $8 per pound as the season progresses and more mushrooms are available.
Outside the wild season, some gourmet suppliers will provide restaurants with morels, at a price. They can reach $50 per pound other times of the year.
Michael LaValle, general manager of the Embassy Club in Des Moines, said his restaurant will buy about 500 pounds of morels from foragers in the spring. All that fungus makes a pile six feet high and six feet across. "We celebrate the morel season," he said. The restaurant will also feature chicken of the woods and oyster mushrooms when they are available.
Beerman said most people simply soak morels to clean them and force insects out of the mushrooms' crevices. Then they let them dry, toss them in flour and fry the mushrooms in butter.
At Aunt Maude's and The Caf? in Ames, chef Kurt Chaussey said he'll try stuffing the mushroom caps, saut?ing them with onions or serving them over steak.
Tiffany said any new mushroom hunters should find a few varieties that they can easily identify and find tasty. Beware of eating mushrooms that aren't identified. The old mushroom hunter saying, "There are no old and bold mushroom hunters," should be a warning. "Not many are deadly poisonous, but there are some that will make you sick. And some just aren't worth eating," she said.
Roy Reehil is the former mayor of Cleveland, N.Y., population 850 located near the Adirondack Mountains, and is president of The Forager Press, Inc.
Forager Press sells cookbooks, guides and information books on mushroom hunting. He also maintains an online guide for wild produce hunters. Go to http://theforagerpress.com and click on the link for the online field guide.