Morel Fact or Fiction Game! Updated for 2017!

Hey all, it’s time to play Morel: Fact or Fiction!

Photo - Jinxie the Wonder Mongrel - Oakridge, OR

Photo – Jinxie the Wonder Mongrel – Oakridge, OR

Morel Season ain’t going to start Chicago area for about a month if I’m lucky or two if I’m bad, but being one of the more middling climates we Chicagoans get to spend a lot of time reading the Morel Forums.

Most serious mushroom hunters and mycologists stay out of them after the first week, we just can’t stand more than a week of debunking “traditional knowledge” that has been passed on for the last 100 years and we give up.

This is a simple set of True or False questions to test your knowledge about the Morel Mushroom. While some of the answers will surprise you, science is science, and sometimes you’ve got to go against tradition. I look forward to the debunking of the debunking.

Morels Fruit in one night, “Popping Up” at the size that they’ll be.

True or False?

Morels pin like any other mushrooms, then begin to fruit and grow under the right conditions. They start small and grow for about two to three weeks. There are several time lapse videos that show quite well their growth. Folks who say things like, “if you’re quiet enough, on a dark night, you can hear ’em pop!” are full of more than mushrooms.

legend has it

Legend has it that this notorious morel hunter from one of the the Driftless Region of the State of Wisconsin wasn’t careful walking at night while hunting morels with a flashlight, while they were popping. And boy diggity did that fellar pop, or what?

You must carry your morels in a mesh bag so they drop their spores, if you don’t “seed” your patch it’ll die out.

True or False?

Many folks carry mesh bags or baskets, and many mushrooms drop their spores after they’re cut and the gills dry slightly. But Morels are Ascomycetes and release their spores differently than most mushrooms. The release when they’re ready to release through asci, and especially in the case of young fruiting bodies, may not release at all.

Morels and are just the reproductive organ of the larger organism known as the mycelium. The mycelium may have been there for longer than your grandpappy’s been alive. For most species of Morels to keep growing they just need to continue exchanging nutrients for sugars with the root ball of the tree it’s partnered with. Morels can become saprotrophic upon the death of the tree host, at that point the mycelium will quickly (over the next few years) use up all of the energy of the root ball, fruiting prolifically. That’s why you’re looking especially close under dead trees for that honey hole.

For the serious Morel hunter using handled paper bags or five gallon buckets protect your Morels from damage that they inflict on themselves grating against the mesh of the bag. One of the best professional foragers I know only uses five gallon buckets because he’s tramping through dense underbrush, another who hunts Morels eight months a year uses a mesh bag. They’re both wrong, err, maybe they’re both right! Let the arguing begin!

(but I’m using two five gallon buckets with guitar straps and 3/8ths holes drilled all over, you gotta do what you gotta do!)

Grey Morels eat better than Yellow Morels!

True or False?

They are exactly the same!

All mushrooms are “born” with the same number of cells that they will have at maturity. The need sunlight, water, and nutrients to fully mature.

All Grey Morels will turn into Yellow Morels if given the above. There are no Grey Morels in North America, they are immature Yellow Morels. (or is it there are no Yellow Morels, there are only mature Grey Morels?) Either way the species are genetically the same, regardless of color and size.

If they’re grey, and still small let them sit for a few days. If they don’t grow then dump a few gallons of water near them. If that don’t work get on your knees and pray to your mushroom gods.

Morels grow wherever the spores land.

True or False?

There are at a minimum 19 species of Morels in the US, 14 of which have only been typed in the last seven years or so. Different species of Morels have different mycorrhizal mutually symbiotic relationships with differing trees. Morels generally have distinct macroscopic properties that can be determined with careful examination if you take the time to use a key. Dropping the spores of a Morel that is associated with Cottonwood Trees at the base of a Fir Tree will do no good for the Fir, the Morel or anything else.

You need to look carefully everywhere for morels, they are sneaky bastards.

True or False?

Morels are sneaky bastards! Here’s Mushroom King Weipert finding them in a hole from a root ball. But that’s not all, pro hunters will tell you to move at a good clip, not wasting your time checking every leaf, tree or outhouse!

Look for the big “Flag” Morel, that one flag that signifies others are around. Find the flag and then slowly and carefully inspect all around it in a radius that grows each revolution. This is the time for careful consideration of every leaf under the tree, not every leaf in the forest.

If your plan is a nice walk in the woods, by all means take your time. If you want to come home with a few bags of the finest landfish possible then cover lot’s of ground, know your trees, and hit the trees that are likely to produce a flush.

Pulling your morels will kill your patch!

True or False

Cutting Morels will leave a butt to rot and kill your patch! or You’ve got to pull so the mycelium breaks and “y’s” off making it stronger! Both methods are wrong! Errr, RIGHT! Pulling a mushroom does effect the mycelium, that’s right it yanks the tiny threads and rips them, and the theory that the mycelium “y’s” off and makes the network stronger has been shown as fact. Cutting your Morel, pinching it, and leaving a bit on the ground doesn’t effect the mycelium any more than not picking it at all, and might even be better than leaving a whole Morel to rot.

What’s great about this video is that the original research that Grey and Yellow Morels being the SAME species came out before the video was posted.

An ongoing study by the Oregon Mycological Society has shown that for Chanterelles at least pulling your mushrooms leads to higher yields, About 25% more mushrooms fruited from the beds that were yanked out, as opposed to the beds that were cut. I urge you to do your own real research, pull them babies and cut the butts in the field. Get back to me in 25 years and let me know how it’s turned out.

Use whatever method you’re most comfortable with, or what you’ve been taught. But remember to cut your butt stem so you don’t bring dirt into you bag, basket, bucket or whatever the hell you’re carry that 50 pounds of mushrooms out of the woods in.

Morels have no real nutritional value!

True or False?

morel nutrition factMorel Minerals ProteinMorel Carbs

Morels are actually a pretty healthy food. High in vitamin D, B complex, fiber, minerals, and relatively high in protein. You need to cook all mushrooms or you’ll get almost nothing out of them, the cells are made of “chitin” and not cellulose like most foods we eat. The chitin is strong and won’t release the nutrients without softening the walls by cooking. Since Morels contain a small amount of hydrazine it’s a good idea to cook that rocket fuel out of them anyway.

You know what, screw that nutritional information, both you and I know you’re going to throw them in a pound of butter. How ever you cook them you only get them for a few weeks a year, as long as you can buckle your belt when you’re done it’s all good!

You’ve got to soak your morels in salt water overnight, otherwise they’ll be too buggy?

True or False?

Folks do this to kill the bugs, but if you’re not slicing them you’re eating them bugs anyway, so give them a quick rinse if they’re a little dirty (which they wont be too dirty because you were careful and cut all the butt stems and any nasty parts off in the field, right?)

If you’re slicing them why bother soaking them, it robs them of flavor. Cut them and slap your knife down on the board as them little critters try to scamper away. Your aim will get better – the more times you miss and hit your grandmothers only heirloom table, or cut you little ones fingers off – I guarantee!

Wet morels don’t bring as much money, no one wants a waterlogged piece of slimy trash that was once a Morel, and the fresh dry ones taste better, last longer and have more protein (you know, because the bugs are fresh!)

You can eat Morels in the field!

True or False?

You actually need to fully cook all wild mushrooms. Mushroom cellular walls are comprised of chitin, and mammals are used to digesting cellulose. Humans (that’s you by the way) can’t digest chitin, nor can we get the nutrients from the mushrooms, and chitin has an adverse affect on our digestive system (race you to the bathroom!)

The good news is that a couple of hundred of generations before you and I were born humans discovered fire. Cooking meat allowed us to be able to digest more animal protein and enlarged our brains (a lot of good that’s done us so far!) But cooking mushrooms allow us to break down the chitin cellular wall and get all the good nutrients.

If you want to eat raw mushrooms in the field stick to sampling Oyster mushrooms every now and then.

You can eat False Morels, they’re great!

True or False?

Gyromitra

Well, from what I hear they are pretty tasty. The problem is the toxin in Gyromitra spp. builds up in your body and you’ll never know when you’ll get enough to get you violently ill, or for that matter enough that you cough up your kidneys and liver. Gyromitras, False Morels sometimes called “Reds,” “Beefsteaks,” or “Snowdrift Mushrooms” all contain Gyromitrin or specifically, N-methyl-N-formylhydrazine. (There’s that damned rocket fuel again!)

You’ll find many folks ID’ing Gyromitra as edible, often stating that they’ve been eating them for generations and “I ain’t dead yet!” Well that’s just frigging dandy, and it’s quite possible that they’ll never suffer any ill effects from Gyromitra, but it does cause 2 – 4% of mushroom fatalities. If you see someone telling folks incomplete information regarding this mushroom it’s your duty to tell the whole story.

Tom Volk, Mycologist at University of Wisconsin, La Crosse says, “Gyromitrin is a hemolytic toxin (i.e. it destroys red blood cells) in humans, other primates, and dogs. It is toxic to the central nervous system and damages the liver and gastrointestinal tract. It may act by interfering with transaminases, particularly those having a pyridoxal phosphate cofactor. Vitamin B6 is used in the treatment. As in cyclopeptide poisoning, a relatively long latent period ensues (6 to 12 hours) between ingestion and symptoms. The symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, distention, weakness, lassitude, and headache; if the condition is severe, these may develop into jaundice, convulsions, coma, and death. Methemoglobinuria and very low blood sugar are found in laboratory tests.”

But for all you folks whose uncle also happens to be their father who have been eating them for 30 years, please don’t listen to science, continue to eat them – we could always use more data points.

Morels are the only safe mushroom to hunt!

True or False?

80 pound Maitake

80 pound Maitake

If you think this one is true you’re missing a whole lot of fine mushrooms. Above is a photo of what was an 86 pound Hen of the Woods. I had to cut into three pieces to carry it out of the woods.When I’m out hunting Morels I’m also looking for Ramps, and Nettles, and on the way home wild garlic and wild onion on the road sides, as well as Dryads Saddle (P. saqumosus) and Chicken of the Woods (L. sulphureus) and other early fruiting mushrooms in the woods and on the trees as I drive.

There’re a group of mushrooms called the “Foolproof Four” and I usually add two more to them for the Foolproof Four plus Two! I’ve managed to make a pretty good living knowing these mushrooms, and you should know them also.

Learn these additional mushrooms and you’ll never be without. Sometimes it’s just easier looking for a ten pound Hen of the Woods, or the bright orange Chicken of the Woods than it is finding a couple of dozen 1/4 ounce morels.

One more thing, remember to turn GIS on when using your camera, and post your photos of your honey hole widely!

Whatever you’re doing, have fun, eat well, and teach each other.

If you’re in the Midwest don’t forget to check out our Guide to Midwest Morel Festival for 2017!

Special thanks go to L. Sulphureus, Oregon based professional forager and artist for prompting this post by asking for Morel Myths on his facebook page

2016 – The Very Busy Year

I’ve not updated in quite a while. Last year was quite busy. In fact I lost most of my woods time to the day job. I managed about 60 hours a week, possibly fifty – depending who you ask. I still managed to pick Juneberries, Elderflowers, Elderberries, Black Walnuts, Hazelnuts, Aronia Berries, and a few hundred pounds of Hen of the Woods (Maitake), and exactly two morels during a trip (no pun intended) to Starved Rock State Park Lodge.

I got to the woods as often as possible. besides the LaSalle County, Illinois trip we spent many weekends in the Cook County Forest Preserves on short hikes throughout the summers. We covered Chicken of the Woods on old friend’s stump that produces after each rain, oyster mushrooms until the first hard freeze and went down to Brown County and Bloomington, Indiana were our good friend Tom had just moved into his first house.

During that trip we harvested Honey Mushrooms some unidentified boletes, several maitake, a few oysters and as many geodes as I could carry. We also had the great experience building a 1,600 foot pen to house his herd of American Guinea hogs, later to be expanded into 3 runs into the ravine. We also had a great time at Tom’s first hosting of a community fire and dinner, and got caught up in the Brown County Hilly 100 bicycle race.

I’ll miss the “Simply Mushroom, Simply Music Festival” for the second year in a row, unfortunately the massive planning for the music and mushroom fest is too much at the time, but hopefully it’ll be back next year.

In the fall we hosted two forays for a botanical brewery that calls Chicago their home. Over two days, a week apart, in September and in the midst of a drought we brought over 20 people each Tuesday to the woods and taught them responsible foraging, mushroom identification and urban edible pant identification. Everyone managed full bags of fresh mushrooms, and many other left with flowers and greenery from our urban tour.I don’t have explicate permission to share the brewery’s name but if you find yourself on west Chicago Avenue, near a fantastic botanical brewery you should stop in. I recommend the Ginger beer, one of the most refreshing brews I’ve ever had.

We also hosted a smaller foray with Carnivore Oak Park. ten of us braved cooler, but wetter weather. Though was a strange fall we managed drought conditions and succeeded, after the first late rain we still managed to succeed.

The greatest woods to hunt the Hen of the Woods or Maitake, these are my favorite woods. I’ve been going there long before a passion for mushrooms developed. Even after the rain, they had never have produced at such low levels. During the drought the healthy Oak Trees with good root balls produced minimally, the dying or dead trees didn’t until the first insignificant rain.

One morning I had a friend pick me up at 5:30 am, we hit the woods before first light, it had rained mildly but it was in late October. Rosalyn picked me up, and just before first light my friend Jeremy met us. It was strange, barely light, I with with two chefs who didn’t know trees or woodways or have a flashligh we were stumbling and bumbling in the woods. It was lovely!

My big find was a case of Budweiser in cans, the cardboard rotted away. I lost faith at that point, even though they both found bags of mushrooms. I didn’t bother with the woods again, getting busy at work, hungry to get back out. The hairs on my neck occasionally standing straight after a rain. I knew I should.

I’m proud to say, this was the first time in many years that I’ve left more mushrooms in the woods than I could carry.

Pictures coming soon.

 

 

 

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2017 Midwest Morel Festival Guide

Original Artwork - Claudia McGhee http://goo.gl/tKUYhC

Original Artwork – Claudia McGehee
http://goo.gl/tKUYhC

Morel Festivals of Midwest

It’s soon to be spring in the Midwest and with spring comes urgent need to get to the woods and beat out the crowds for the coveted morel mushroom. With hundreds of thousands of morel enthusiasts competing for diminishing hunting grounds and urgently checking morel maps and forums to see if morels are fruiting locally, communities with prime hunting grounds are planning entertaining and educational festivals. Most festivals are replete with carnivals, parades, grand forays with prizes for the largest haul, and morel auctions there’s fun for the entire family.

Simply put, Morels have an incredible, meaty flavor and are the most sought after mushroom in the US. Many folks begin hunting morels and then move on to other mushrooms, but most continue to only hunt this special fungi. If you’ve never hunted them, this is your opportunity to get out there and learn, while meeting professional foragers and learning from some of the best.

Some festivals, Like Illinois’s Midwest Morel Festival in Ottawa, Illinois concentrate on mushroom picking education through their Morel University classes, others like Wisconsin’s Musconda Morel Festival offer free rides back to your hotel for those that over indulge. All festivals stress the educational and recreational experience that a good day in the woods brings.

Each festival is put together by dedicated folks who enjoy the outdoors and are committed to others having good experiences. Whether you’re a beginning morel hunter or a seasoned pro, there’s always something to learn and great folks to meet at these fantastic events.

There have been countless books written on Morel Hunting, and I’m sure you’ll be able to find a few at each festival, but the real deep seated knowledge comes from doing and learning from some of the best is not only possible, but highly achievable by attending one of these fests.

Please click the title of each festival to go directly to that festivals website.

 

mansfield

Mansfield Village Mushroom Festival – April 29th – 30th, 2017

Where: Mansfield Village – Parke County, Indiana

When I was a young lad my mother’s first brand new car was a 1967 VW Transport. My earliest memory is traveling with my parents and seven kids and two dogs to go to family reunions in  Crawford County, Indiana. My older sisters would lead the singing, “We’re going, we’re going, we’re going to Marengo, Indiana, We’re going, we’re going we’re going to Marengo, Indiana!” was the constant refrain.

Always from Chicago we’d hit 65 to Indy and then 37 south and turn left toward English, Indiana, the county seat. Each summer we’d take a few extra hours, often to my fathers chagrin, to travel Parke County and hit the many covered bridges on the way back after a long weekend of too much food and too much play down on the farm.

This festival pairs the best family entertainment, a judged car show, and mushroom hunting. There’s nothing better for a spring weekend than to roll into town and put up for a decent show of oldies music, good beer, and decent food, all while checking out the best in central Indiana’s antique cars. One thing you won’t find here is a guided hunt. There’ll be people to tell you where to go (whether you believe them or not is up to you) but there are prizes for every category.

Don’t miss the daylong Morel Auction on the steps of the Red Barn beginning promptly at 10:00 am on Main Street. Yeah, seriously, the Old Red Barn in Downtown is a feature and important part of this community. Hit it up, hang out and let this mushroom fest connect with you and your family.

The Mushroom Festival Car Show will take place Sunday, in the Old Barnyard, adjacent to the Red Barn.  Dash Plaques will go to the first 200 Entries.  Free oldies music on the day of the show.  Registration & judging begins at 8:00 and continues until Noon.  Awards will be presented at 2 PM.

And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend that you and yours would travel the county and see each of the 31 different covered bridges.

 

MMFlogo.jpg

Irvine, Kentucky – April 29th – 30th –  Mountain Mushroom Festival

Nestled on a peninsula of land surrounded by the Natural Bridge Resort State Park, Irvine is about 30 miles South/Southwest of Lexington, Kentucky. The Mountain Mushroom Festival features about 100 booths of arts and crafts and vendors. A parade, and carnival will also be ongoing, a 5k fun run, mushroom auction, tractor show, antique car show and cake decoration demonstration and contest are in the works.

Setting itself apart from other festivals an agate and mineral hunt is scheduled for the Mountain Mushroom Festival has, a canoe and kayak 6 mile run and a mushroom photography show. Daniel Spicer won last years men’s 5k race, Ashley Hood-Morley snagged the women’s best time fir the Fungus 5k footrace.

The Mountain Morel Festival is the only known to have a beauty and talent pageant, from 6 months to 21 years, boys and girls.

 

Ottawa Banner

Ottawa, Illinois – May 6th –  Midwest Morel Fest

On the banks of the Illinois River about an hour and a half from Chicago  and about a fifteen minute drive from Starved Rock State Park and it’s famous lodge, the Midwest Morel Fest will be a large draw, featuring a “Learn to Hunt” Guided Foray by Morel University, and the Championship Foray on Saturday. The Fest also features a morel museum, a home made craft fair and tours of the local and beautiful Reddick Mansion.

The Ottawa, Illinois Midwest Morel Fest has been the place to be since 1996, and Ottawa is it’s third home, originally begun in Magnolia, Illinois for ten years it had a great run. The Henry, Illinois Chamber of Commerce organized it for several years until the economic downturn, and now the fine folks in Ottawa do the hard work of organizing it.

Sure to delight will be the home brew beer tasting and home brew seminar during their Morel Mash Up a silent auction and of course, the Morel Auction.

This years festival is a one day spectacular beginning at 7:30 am for registration, 8:30 Morel University “How to hunt Morels” class. Guided hunts and the Championship Hunt beginning at 9:00 am, prizes awarded at 2:00. Beer tasting begins at 12:30, the annual Morel Auction kicks off at 1:00pm

Tom Nauman, the fests founder tells me, “Last year was a fantastic success, morels started a couple weeks early and stuck around a couple weeks after the fest, 2016 was such a huge success. With the warm winter it seems we’ve got the perfect weekend picked and we’re anticipating a lot of repeat attendees so sign up early!”

morel-uuniversity-honor-society

morel-university2

The Valedictorian and above the Illinois Morel Honor Society

The 2016 Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship awards were presented to: Largest Morel went to Randy Dedecker (length plus girth at 12.5 inches) and the Grand Champion with the most found was Randy Dedecker, again, as usual. Lisa Walner, the woman’s champion snagged 17 morels.

 

Stark

Original Artwork – L. Sulpureus – Prints Available here: http://goo.gl/cy5E4T

Wyoming, Illinois – May 6th – Stark County Morel Fest

This one day Morel Festival is actually set for the first Saturday in May every year, by county decree. This festival is is halfway between Moline and Davenport, Illinois and features a morel auction and the usual round up of excellent middle American festival fare such as pork chops and sausage sandwiches as well as a round up of kids activities like ring toss and hay rides.

The new home for the fest is Catalpa Grove, five miles due west of Wyoming on route 17. The Rock Island Trail abuts the Catalpa Grove, and the and the Spoon River flows through the grounds, but don’t tell anyone, this might just be the best kept secret for small mouth bass fishing, according to the locals.

Duke Frisby, the Stark County Morel Fest founder is a stalwart in the Morel Mushroom hunting community in Central Illinois – The history of how this festival got started is really the method to get things done anywhere – whether it be a small community or large. – during a meeting with county officials regarding putting in new canoe ramps to further recreation and tourism the county decided to send it to die in the Road Department. During the same meeting and without skipping a beat Duke decided to punt and get some yardage for his community, he suggested that the county host a Morel Mushroom Festival to bring in tourists, and spur the local economy. They bit the  bait and it’s been nine years of very successful Stark County Morel Festivals.

Duke Frisby told me via secured communications that a group of rabble rousers from Missouri way are going to hit the low Montana plains and score a several hundred pounds of morels between them, at least 100 pounds of which are coming back to the auction and a morel fry up at the Festival.

The Catalpa Grove Inn will be the Morel Auction Headquarters beginning at 2:00 pm, with space for overflow bidders sheltered outside it should be a full house. Rumor is that there will be a poker run that culminates at the Inn if the weather is right, so bid early and bid often! In previous years the Lions Club hosted a Biscuits and Gravy Breakfast, as of press time we were unable to find confirmation on the biscuits.

 

Richmond Banner

Richmond, Missouri – May  4th – 6th –  “The Mushroom Capital of the World” Morel Festival 

“The Mushroom Capital of the World” Morel Festival kicks off May 4th through the 6th. Attracting upwards of 5,000 people it features a kids hay ride, grand parade, carnival and a 5k run, the festival is in it’s 24th year. Organizer Natalie Lamar, a fourth generation morel hunter says, “The morel season kicks off next week, I find it a little odd that there have been morels found to the north, usually they’re fruiting here first, but with a few cool nights and warms days we’ll see a fantastic crop.”

In its 37th year the festival that began as a sidewalk sale in 1980, promises to add more food vendors to feed the over 5,000 expected attendees. Apparently the Society for Creative Anachronism also attends this festival.

 

 

mesick2017

Mesick, Michigan – May 12th – 14th –  Mesick Annual Mushroom Festival

The Mesick Morel Festival lies just outside the Manistee National Forest and Mesick is located about 15 miles south of Traverse City, Michigan . The Fest features a flea market, an antique car show and three days of carnivals – moms ride free with kids on Mother’s Day. This fest also features a magic show, beer tent and horse pull. Sponsored by the local Lions Club the Mesick Fest also features a Softball Tournament, a 5k run, Grand Parade and a carnival. After Saturday’s Parade there will be a “Mud Bog Competition” in which 4 WD racers will compete in a mud track race.

The Mesick Chamber of Commerce concludes that Mesick is the Mushroom Capital of the Midwest, as well as being a small town with a big heart. I do know that they run a heck of a parade!

This Festival has too many activities to list, the days are packed whether you want to spend time on rides and games with the kids or want to sneak away into the woods, it’s got something for everyone.

 

Lewiston Banner

Lewiston, Michigan – May 13th  –  Lewiston Morel Mushroom Festival

The Lewiston Morel Mushroom Festival is a one day event with morning guided forays, mushrooms tastings, an arts and craft show as well as an outdoor equipment show featuring archery, hunting and equipment. Lewiston is in Eastern Michigan in the Center of Grayling State Forest, about 30 miles north of Huron National Forest. The Grayling State Forest is home to some of the largest morels found.

 

National Banner
Boyne City, Michigan – May 17th – 21st  –  “National Morel Mushroom Festival

Up the glove in Michigan, spot on Lake Charlevoix the Boyne City Morel Fest is in the heart of Michigan’s Morel Country. A Carnival Midway is set up for the fest, with Music Friday and Saturday Night. The Grand Championship Foray is on Saturday, on private grounds, with participants bused over to the undisclosed location.

“I’ve been going since I was a youngster,” says Ashleigh Harris of Michigan Mushroom Marketplace, “And this is the seventh year as the sole mushroom vendor. This fest has not only cooking demonstrations but a tasting and cooking competition,” says Harris.

Ashleigh and Ken Harris, her co-owner of MMM, lost their retail shop in 2016 due to an electrical fire and have since focused on wholesale to restaurants across Michigan of both foraged and cultivated mushroom and wild foods. They’ll be opening their retail shop in 2017 and again feature prepared foods, pizzas and ready to go soups and compound butters. The entire mushroom community is anxiously awaiting their new store, myself especially because she owes me a pound of compound butter.

Musconda

Muscoda, Wisconsin – May 20th – 21st –  Morel Mushroom Festival

The Musconda, Wisconsin morel festival, in it’s 34th year, the festival is sponsored by the local American Legion. The Town of Musconda is nestled in state forests on the Wisconsin river halfway between Madison and Prairie du Chien, and attracts folks as far away as Chicago and the Quad Cities attracting about 3,000 people. The prime morel spots west of Lake Michigan happen to be right around Musconda.

Cinda Johnson is one of the folks that help organize the fest, Cinda says shes been coming to the festival for over 20 years, “I love being outdoors in the woods, I love the possibility of finding that honey spot.” As usual she says, “the mainstage music will be at the firehouse, but this year they’re having a DJ at Mushroom Head Quarters.”

The festival funds the local American Legion Hall’s activities, including local little league teams.

 

black-morel-hottenanny

Minnesota! Black Morel Hootenanny – May 19th  – May 21st Superior National Forest

This is a semi-private event, ticketed event – part camping trip, part music and food festival, part certification course. Located north of Duluth, Minnesota this trip is sponsored by Gentleman Forager, a company that specializes in full day and weekend forays throughout Minnesota.

The chefs the Gentleman Forager wholesale to come out and lead cooking demonstrations and cook most the meals. Local musicians set up and put on professional shows. The location is the real star though, and if you’ve ever wanted to see “God’s Country,” look no further.

This is certainly an a-typical morel mushroom event, camping, guided mushroom foraging, chef driven meals, certifications, and a slight edge of roughing it, this may not be for everyone, but if you’ve got the steel, then you should check it out.

Sometimes there are lesser events that don’t really include a festival. If you’re in the area, they’re really worth checking out, though may not be a family destination. These I list below.

St. Louis area – Pere Marquette Morel Festival – April 23 pierre-marquette

Pere Marquette Morel Festival is at one of Illinois most beautiful State Parks, with a lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s in the Arts and Crafts style. Arts and craft vendors will be selling attractive handmade merchandise, and I predict there will be plenty of “backroom” morel sales in the parking lot.

This will be a great day for people from Saint Louis to Peoria. If the season is early it’ll blow away other festivals with large blondes, if it’s late then your practically guaranteed to go home with the great black morels that blanket the area!

Come for the festival, and stay in the lodge! You can rent a cabin, stay in the “Modern Wing” (circa 1988) or the Historic Wing which has the best views. With phenomenal fried chicken dinners the lodge’s restaurant is a mandatory stop after a day of morel hunting. Stop by the lodge’s winery (yes, the State Park Lodge has its own winery!) for a tasting and bring a few bottles home. You can rent a boat, a bicycle or even a horse!

This festival includes prizes for the smallest, largest and most gathered during the great hunt that kicks off at 1:00 pm. Don’t blink because you might miss this one, it starts at 11:00 and and ends at 3:00 pm. Prizes include a nights stay in the lodge!

bcsp

Brown County, Indiana – May 3 – Nashville, Indiana

On Saturday, May 3rd, 2014, Brown County State Park will celebrate the 8th Annual Morel Mushroom Sale & Festival! Cooking demonstrations, kid’s coloring tents, and prizes for the largest morel.

There will be a noon cooking demonstration, morel sale at 1:00 pm, as well as local musical acts. 3:30 pm is the largest, smallest and most prize awards.

 

browncounty2015

Brown County, Indiana – On Hiatus   – “Simply Music, Simply Morel Fest”

Unfortunately, as of this writing, the “Simply Music, Simply Morels Festival” is not being organized for 2017. We’ll update you as soon as new information is known. 

Beautiful Brown County is about an hour from Indianapolis and about four and a half hours from Chicago. Rolling hills and beautiful scenery of this driftless region, along with the abundance of recreational forest land make this a truly special part of the Midwest. The people in Brown County will welcome you and make you feel like you belong. Brown County is home to Brown County State Park, Yellow Wood State Forest as well as parts of the Hoosier National Forest.

With the emphasis on education the fest has in the past booked great mushroom hunters to lead forays, Folks like Leon Shernoff of Mushroom, the Journal, Eric Osborne of Magnificent Mushrooms Andy Methven co-author of 100 Cool Mushrooms and UI Mycologist, and Thomas “The Mushroom King” Weipert from Lewiston, Montana  comingto to lead forays, cooking demonstrations and giving lectures on tree identification. Rob Poe (me) spoke in 2015, with Dave Gold of Odd Produce in Chicago about how to make a living foraging ethically full time.

r_wildMorel-21web

Now with almost every weekend over the next month and a half booked, all I can say is, have fun! And save some for me!

Feel free to contact me to add your festival to the list

All morel hunters should take a look at the Morel Fact or Fiction Game!

Fall 2015 Forays Planned

Finally some rain, and time to get out to the woods!

There are currently two guided forays planned, September 19th and the 27th. Both car pool from Carnivore Meats and Seafood – 1042 Pleasant Street, Oak Park – at 10:00 am (ish) and return for a communal meal with our finds around 2:00 – 3:00 pm.

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Both are designed for the beginning mushroom and plant forager, concentrating on local, easily identified, edible species that don’t have poisonous look-a-likes. Forays are for educational purposes so you’ll have a fuller understanding of mushroom species, biomes, fungi interrelation with tree and plant partnerships.

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Forays are relaxed and fun, family friendly and designed so you’ll be able to walk away with enough knowledge to add to your next meal after a good walk in the woods.

Species fruiting right now – Maitake (Hen of the Woods), Chicken of the Woods, Enoki, Oyster, Entoloma, Shrimp Entoloma, Honey Mushroom, Lion’s Mane (and other Hericium) Puffballs, Blewits, Boletes, Resinous Polypore, Berkeley’s polypore, Cauliflower Mushroom, Beefsteak, Reishi and so many other fine mushrooms!

As well as; American Ginger, Lamb’s Quarter, Ramp bulbs, Wild Grapes, Hazelnuts, Hickory, Black Walnuts, Wild Pecan and so much more!

Reserve your slot by calling 708.660.1100

Course fee is $40.00 per person, or $75.00 per couple. Includes forage driven, chef cooked meal.

BYOB meal

Oyster

Oyster

Remember, before you come out, read this short regarding your first time out.

Morel: Fact or Fiction Game! Updated for 2015!

Hey all, it’s time to play Morel: Fact or Fiction!

Photo - Jinxie the Wonder Mongrel - Oakridge, OR

Photo – Jinxie the Wonder Mongrel – Oakridge, OR

Morel Season ain’t going to start Chicago area for about a month, but being one of the more middling climates we Chicagoans get to spend a lot of time reading the Morel Forums.

Most serious mushroom hunters and mycologists stay out of them after the first week, we just can’t stand more than a week of debunking “traditional knowledge” that has been passed on for the last 100 years and we give up.

This is a simple set of True or False questions to test your knowledge about the Morel Mushroom. While some of the answers will surprise you, science is science, and sometimes you’ve got to go against tradition. I look forward to the debunking of the debunking.

Morels Fruit in one night, “Popping Up” at the size that they’ll be.

True or False?

Morels pin like any other mushrooms, then begin to fruit and grow under the right conditions. They start small and grow for about two to three weeks. There are several time lapse videos that show quite well their growth. Folks who say things like, “if you’re quiet enough, on a dark night, you can hear ’em pop!” are full of more than mushrooms.

legend has it

Legend has it that this notorious morel hunter from one of the Southern states wasn’t careful walking at night while hunting with a flashlight, while they were popping.

You must carry your morels in a mesh bag so they drop their spores, if you don’t “seed” your patch it’ll die out.

True or False?

Many folks carry mesh bags or baskets, and many mushrooms drop their spores after they’re cut and the gills dry slightly. But Morels are Ascomycetes and release their spores differently than most mushrooms. The release when they’re ready to release through asci, and especially in the case of young fruiting bodies, may not release at all.

Morels and are just the reproductive organ of the larger organism known as the mycelium. The mycelium may have been there for longer than your grandpappy’s been alive. To keep growing it just needs to continue exchanging nutrients for sugars with the root ball of the tree it’s partnered with. Morels can become saprotrophic upon the death of the tree host, at that point the mycelium will quickly (over the next few years) use up all of the energy of the root ball, fruiting prolifically. That’s why you’re looking especially close under dead trees for that honey hole.

For the serious Morel hunter using handled paper bags or five gallon buckets protect your Morels from damage that they inflict on themselves grating against the mesh of the bag. One of the best professional foragers I know only uses five gallon buckets because he’s tramping through dense underbrush, another who hunts Morels eight months a year uses a mesh bag. They’re both wrong, err, maybe they’re both right! Let the arguing begin!

(but I’m using two five gallon buckets with guitar straps and 3/8ths holes drilled all over, you gotta do what you gotta do!)

Grey Morels eat better than Yellow Morels!

True or False?

They are exactly the same!

All mushrooms are “born” with the same number of cells that they will have at maturity. The need sunlight, water, and nutrients to fully mature.

All Grey Morels will turn into Yellow Morels if given the above. There are no Grey Morels in North America, they are immature Yellow Morels. (or is it there are no Yellow Morels, there are only mature Grey Morels?) Either way the species are genetically the same, regardless of color and size.

If they’re grey, and still small let them sit for a few days. If they don’t grow then dump a few gallons of water on them. If that don’t work get on your knees and pray to your mushroom gods.

Morels grow wherever the spores land.

True or False?

There are over 19 species of Morels in the US, 14 of which have only been typed in the last five years or so. Different species of Morels have different mycorrhizal mutually symbiotic relationships with differing trees. Morels generally have distinct macroscopic properties that can be determined with careful examination if you take the time to use a key. Dropping the spores of a Morel that is associated with Cottonwood Trees at the base of a Fir Tree will do no good for the Fir, the Morel or anything else.

You need to look carefully everywhere for morels, they are sneaky bastards.

True or False?

Morels are sneaky bastards! Here’s Mushroom King Weipert finding them in a hole from a root ball. But that’s not all, pro hunters will tell you to move at a good clip, not wasting your time checking every leaf, tree or outhouse! Look for the big “Flag” Morel, that one flag that signifies others are around. Find the flag and then slowly and carefully inspect all around it in a radius that grows each revolution. This is the time for careful consideration of every leaf under the tree, not every leaf in the forest.

Pulling your morels will kill your patch!

True or False

Cutting Morels will leave a butt to rot and kill your patch! or You’ve got to pull so the mycelium breaks and “y’s” off making it stronger! Both methods are wrong! Errr, RIGHT! Pulling a mushroom does effect the mycelium, that’s right it yanks the tiny threads and rips them, and the theory that the mycelium “y’s” off and makes the network stronger has been shown as fact. Cutting your Morel, pinching it, and leaving a bit on the ground doesn’t effect the mycelium any more than not picking it at all, and might even be better than leaving a whole Morel to rot.

What’s great about this video is that the original research that Grey and Yellow Morels being the SAME species came out before the video was posted.

An ongoing study by the Oregon Mycological Society has shown that for Chanterelles at least pulling your mushrooms leads to higher yields, About 25% more mushrooms fruited from the beds that were yanked out, as opposed to the beds that were cut. I urge you to do your own real research, pull them babies and cut the butts in the field. Get back to me in 22 years and let me know how it’s turned out.

Use whatever method you’re most comfortable with, or what you’ve been taught. But remember to cut your butt stem so you don’t bring dirt into you bag, basket, bucket or whatever the hell you’re carry that 50 pounds of mushrooms out of the woods in.

Morels have no real nutritional value!

True or False?

morel nutrition factMorel Minerals ProteinMorel Carbs

Morels are actually a pretty healthy food. High in vitamin D, B complex, fiber, minerals, and relatively high in protein. You need to cook all mushrooms or you’ll get almost nothing out of them, the cells are made of “chitin” and not cellulose like most foods we eat. The chitin is strong and won’t release the nutrients without softening the walls by cooking. Since Morels contain a small amount of hydrazine it’s a good idea to cook that rocket fuel out of them anyway.

You know what, screw that nutritional information, both you and I know you’re going to throw them in a pound of butter. How ever you cook them you only get them for a few weeks a year, as long as you can buckle your belt when you’re done it’s all good!

You’ve got to soak your morels in salt water overnight, otherwise they’ll be too buggy?

True or False?

Folks do this to kill the bugs, but if you’re not slicing them you’re eating them bugs anyway, so give them a quick rinse if they’re a little dirty (which they wont be too dirty because you were careful and cut all the butt stems and any nasty parts off in the field, right?)

If you’re slicing them why bother soaking them, it robs them of flavor. Cut them and slap your knife down on the board as them little critters try to scamper away. Your aim will get better – the more times you miss and hit your grandmothers only heirloom table, or cut you little ones fingers off – I guarantee!

Wet morels don’t bring as much money, no one wants a waterlogged piece of slimy trash that was once a Morel, and the fresh dry ones taste better, last longer and have more protein (you know, because the bugs are fresh!)

You can eat Morels in the field!

True or False?

You actually need to fully cook all wild mushrooms. Morels contain Hydrazine, a component in both rocket fuel and plastics manufacturing. It’s not good stuff, but fortunately cooks out quickly. You can do it, I’d bring an extra pair of panties.

NOTE: Stephen Russell from Indiana way points out that there hasn’t actually been a gas spectrographic test to prove this. Maybe by this time next year the Chicago Mushroom Man labs will be up and running.

You can eat False Morels, they’re great!

True or False?

Gyromitra

Well, from what I hear they are pretty tasty. The problem is the toxin in Gyromitra spp. builds up in your body and you’ll never know when you’ll get enough to get you violently ill, or for that matter enough that you cough up your kidneys and liver. Gyromitras, False Morels sometimes called “Reds,” “Beefsteaks,” or “Snowdrift Mushrooms” all contain Gyromitrin or specifically, N-methyl-N-formylhydrazine. (There’s that damned rocket fuel again!)

You’ll find many folks ID’ing Gyromitra as edible, often stating that they’ve been eating them for generations and “I ain’t dead yet!” Well that’s just frigging dandy, and it’s quite possible that they’ll never suffer any ill effects from Gyromitra, but it does cause 2 – 4% of mushroom fatalities. If you see someone telling folks incomplete information regarding this mushroom it’s your duty to tell the whole story.

Tom Volk, Mycologist at University of Wisconsin, La Crosse says, “Gyromitrin is a hemolytic toxin (i.e. it destroys red blood cells) in humans, other primates, and dogs. It is toxic to the central nervous system and damages the liver and gastrointestinal tract. It may act by interfering with transaminases, particularly those having a pyridoxal phosphate cofactor. Vitamin B6 is used in the treatment. As in cyclopeptide poisoning, a relatively long latent period ensues (6 to 12 hours) between ingestion and symptoms. The symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, distention, weakness, lassitude, and headache; if the condition is severe, these may develop into jaundice, convulsions, coma, and death. Methemoglobinuria and very low blood sugar are found in laboratory tests.”

But for all you folks whose uncle also happens to be their father who have been eating them for 30 years, please don’t listen to science, continue to eat them – we could always use more data points.

Morels are the only safe mushroom to hunt!

True or False?

80 pound Maitake

80 pound Maitake

If you think this one is true you’re missing a whole lot of fine mushrooms. When I’m out hunting Morels I’m also looking for Ramps and Nettles, as well as Dryads Saddle (P. sasqumosus) and Chicken of the Woods (L. sulphureus) and other early fruiting mushrooms. There’s a group of mushrooms called the “Foolproof Four” and I usually add two more to them for the Foolproof Four plus Two!

Learn these five additional mushrooms and you’ll never be without. Sometimes it’s just easier looking for a ten pound Hen of the Woods, or the bright orange Chicken of the Woods than it is finding a couple of dozen 1/4 ounce morels.

One more thing, remember to turn GIS on when using your camera, and post your photos of your honey hole widely!

Whatever you’re doing, have fun, eat well, and teach each other.

If you’re in the Midwest don’t forget to check out our Guide to Midwest Morel Festival for 2015!

Special thanks go to L. Sulphureus, Oregon based professional forager and artist for prompting this post by asking for Morel Myths on his facebook page

What a fall it is!

Part 2: Back in the City:

I woke up Monday after my weekend in Wisconsin and groaned. We live in Chicago, in a very urban and working- class part of the city, and as soon as my eyes opened I remembered I was no longer in Wisconsin. I was no longer free to idle my days (even though it was basically one full day) my day exploring new spots. I have one full day a week to forage product for sales to restaurants, and that’s Monday.

I dropped my sweetie at her work, and headed to a spot I’ve been hitting since I was 19 years old. I walked into a mowed savanna, note that I’d not been out in my spots for two weeks thanks to the afore mentioned chigger crisis, and almost immediately found my first Maitake. That’s never a good sign. There’s nothing like seeing the first obvious one, and never finding another. But that wasn’t the case, half the trees that hit in that savanna had fully ripe, open fronded Hen of the Woods. I got there at 9:00 AM and by 9:20 had to empty the one large, flat bottom bag I brought. Out of the Jeep came the second and the empty first.

By 11:00 AM I unloaded again.

The entire woods usually takes two and a half hours to walk. I spent two hours in the easy part. I was taking photos of every Maitake I harvested, but that wouldn’t last too long. I moved the Jeep closer to another area of the 160 acre woods, that would take a little hiking with full bags, and jumped out to find nothing for a full fifteen minutes. But then I suddenly had 35 pound bags on each shoulder, I had to drop back at the Jeep, regardless of what I missed.Then it was time to hit my favorite part of the woods.

This particular part is not well traveled, and has Oaks over 150 years old. Almost all produce Hen of the Woods, but to get there from where I parked I have to walk through a hard and barren area where the Honey Fungus has killed off over an acre of trees. All of them had been stripped of their bark several years ago, all had been producing with diminishing returns and I expected none to be fruiting, all were. Damn. Had to walk back with another 40 pounds! 

I got to my favorite spot, where in 2007 I harvested an 85 pound Hen of the Woods from a dead Oak, 30 inches tall, and 24 inches wide. I had had to walk back to my truck to pick up burlap coffee sacks and cut the mushroom down the middle to carry it out in two pieces! Some of the Oak trees in this area of the woods are 8 to 10 foot around, the branches massive.

Two weeks back when I was last out hunting Maitake here, I made a visit to my favorite tree; a tree that usually gifts me four to eight Hens each year, only to see that the storm a few days before had torn it’s crown off, only one branch remains. I audibly cried out and put my hands on that tree.

My old friend hadn’t produce Hens this year, but so many of it’s neighbors had that I had to again empty my bags, and I moved the Jeep once again, closer to where I was hunting. I noticed someone walking their dog, I wondered if he’d heard me talking to the Oaks, thanking them for the harvest as I always do. Thinking it might help him see I was not a crazy person I chatted with him and told him I was a mushroom hunter, showed him a nice 3 pound Maitake, and that if he sees one he should take it and eat it. Not sure if he thought I was more or less crazy then when he’d heard me talking to the trees, but at least he humored me.

By 11:00 AM I was texting with a Chef and customer whose company and conversation I enjoy and agreed to take him out that afternoon at 2:00 PM. I called all picking off at 1:20 so I could get back to the Jeep and travel to meet him for a foray. It’s amazingly hard to stop harvesting such wonderful gifts from my friends the OOak trees. I hit the trail. No stopping to to check trees even if thery were only a few feet off the trail but found several more anyway. At some point the bags got heavy enough that I had to put blinders on. . By the time I was back at the Jeep I had harvested 145 pound of Maitake, and it was only 1:40 PM.

I raced north to meet my friend and en route asked a fellow forager to meet him. I was only a half hour late, ecstatic, and when I showed them my harvest so were they. The spot I picked was also a spot I’ve been hunting for over ten years, another Oak Savanna, boardered by aslight ridge (very slight compared to what I’d just been hiking in Wisconsin) with old Oaks. We walked the small Savanna and found one perfect Hen, and moved on to the next spot half a mile away.

On the way I noticed a half dozen puffballs fruiting and pulled over. They were confused why I stopped until I asked if they had seen them. We walked a block back through the woods and found the site, seven were too old to harvest, but one three pounder was perfect. The Chef got that one.

We got to the next spot and walked a woods that has done wonders for my mental health. During my worst times I would take an hour to just walk through, noticing, noting, and acknowledging the wildlife, the trees especially. There is nothing like a 200 year old tree to put the previous three months into perspective.

The previous year Dawn had found a standing Oak that was flush with a Leatiporus, not sulphureus, but the marshmallow yellow pored chicken of the woods, It thinks it’s cincinnatus, and never gets hard. I’ve heard that it’s recently been ID’d as a new species, Last year the trunk collapsed, but I harvested it twice during the late fall. I announced to the guys that up ahead there’s a stump, it’s not mine, it’s Dawn’s if there’s Chicken on it. Quickly we came across it and the guys respected that, and I got to take my sweetie several pounds of really good marshmallowly Chicken of the Woods.

We rounded out that set of small woods, about 20 acres of Oaks and Maples and went just east and I agreed, even though I had had more than enough, since I’d been hauling mushrooms since 9:00 AM and it was 5:00 PM) I agreed to run one small Oak savanna with them that usually produces. We stopped on the way there to harvest some really nice yellow crab apples. The savanna didn’t yield much, and the guys went off into the deep Oak forest. Like any good foray leader, I followed them. The end of the story is that I managed about ten more pound of really nice marshmallow Chicken and a few pounds of Sulpureus, and a dozen Hen of the woods, all averaging one to two pounds, and my buddies did likewise.

I didn’t get home until about 8:00 PM, but I had a total haul of about 170 pounds of mushrooms. The other foragers I work with found about 70 or 80 each. I gave twenty away, and we sold out on Tuesday. Wednesday was for me, a light day. Just 29 pounds of maitake, 65 from a friend on Tuesday, and the other two harvested about 50 more. We sold out again on Wednesday! We then harvested from our greenhouse on Thursday and, sold out of all out wild mushrooms, with a few orders to fill for Friday. I went far south and wound up with about 60 pounds, one coworker with 35, and we sold out again.

Today was a foray for educational purposes, led by me, and only a few people showed up, but it was a fun time and my eight year- old son and I managed to harvest 55 pounds in an hour and a half.

All told we sold about 400 hundred pounds of wild mushrooms this past week, and we’re seriously considering that we can improve that to about 550 pounds, all harvested by the three of us, all fresh, and all truly wild.

Want to be a part of it? I’ll see you in the woods.

Foray tomorrow – Free educational foraging trip October 5th, 2014 10:00 AM

Hey all, it’s a little late and a little cold. We may have our first frost tonight.

I’ve been promising forays, and only come through on two this year. This is a kid friendly foray, bring the whole family out for an unforgettable experience!

We’ve been busy! This week we harvested over 400 pounds of Hen of the Woods mushrooms and sold them all to restaurants throughout the city!

We’ll be meeting at 10:00 AM at Meztisoy Market in Pilsen and caravan to a North Side Forest Preserve. Please be on time if you’d like to attend, there will be no meal, and no snacks, so bring a water bottle, some trail snacks, a plastic bag to take out trash you find, a paper bag for scientific collection for identification, and a knife and scissors.

Expect to spend no more than three hours in the woods and then a half hour ID session and debriefing.

Thanks, see you all tomorrow!

Call us at 773-217-4630 for more information!

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Dates for Fall Forays

Laetiporus cincinnatus (Photo Thomas Westgard)

(Photo Thomas Westgard)

We’re setting dates for fall forays, and will update as soon as we have dates and times:

Each session will include a light lunch and snacks. Bring a cooler or cooler bag to keep you mushrooms cool while traveling.

Either August 30 or 31 – Afternoon foraging for mushrooms and berries partnered with a liqueur making session at Meztisoy Market in Pilsen (the hold up is reserving the room for the evening session). Attendees will be able to take home fruit liqueur and sample last years. Beginner experience level – Chicago Area Far South.

Either September 13/14th Mushroom foray and wild medicinal plants (with Chris Mayor of Chicago Wilderness School) afterward a session on tincture making, Beginner skill level. Chicago Area North.

Either September 27th or 28th will be a mushrooms foray/wild plant foray with a cooking demonstration (wild food meal with bread baking?) and meal at Meztisoy. Beginner/intermediate skill level. Chicago Area TBA.

In early October we may have an overnight, camping in Brown County Indiana. This will be an all day Saturday foraging trip, Open fire cooking, the farm raises organic chickens, pigs and the location of our mushroom logs. It’s directly across the street from Yellow Wood State Forest and a 10 minute drive from Brown County State Forest in Nashville, Indiana. Bonfire Saturday night, camping, then Sunday we’ll breakfast together, and hit the woods again before lunch and cook a community lunch before heading back to Chicago. Intermediate/experienced skill level.

What’s Fruiting in the Upper Midwest, This Week!

All I have to say to you is to get to yout favorite woods immediately!

If you’re interested in old news, the Chicago Chanterelle harvest was at an all time low! We had such fantastic early rains, that just dried up for about four weeks, and then nothing after a four inch rain. My favorite spots got flooded and didn’t produce, none of them. During the drought time this year I manged about 12 small Chanterelles, and I managed a literal handful after the massive rain. Some friends in the far Western Suburbs did alright, as somehow more regular rain graced them with something to harvest.

Handful

Over the last two summers the Chicago region had no rain in July and it held off until the first week in August. But even during those years the Chanterelles flushed for a week or two, though in much lower quantities than usual.

My favorite Wild Blackberry spot had barely flowered this year, and when I came back to it two weeks ago there were no ripe berries. A friend stopped over there and told me that most of the ripe berries were already picked. I think a Friday trip to the spot, before the weekenders get them, is definitely in order!

The good news is that foraging for Wild Grapes and Elderberries might set a new record year! Last week I gathered about three pounds of Elderberries and sold them to the second restaurant I visited. Yesterday I went out to my spot and harvested about 10 pounds more, and on the way home noticed a wild grape that is slightly sweet and a little tart, with no tannin and only three seeds. The small grapes will make excellent sauces and an incredible wine. I’m actuallyhoping they don’t sell tomorrow and I can selfishly make some wild wine with them. I managed about 15 pounds before I decided I need to get a ladder to get the last ten pounds.

Wild Grape

There are many wild grapes, and grapes often interbreed into poor varieties, but when you come across a tart and sweet variety remember where it is.

This is a banner year for edible Crab Apples. My friend David Odd harvested about 15 pounds of wildized Dolgo Crab Apples last week. This week I found three trees, long forgotten about, with all sun side branches loaded. The Dolgo Apple which I’ve heard referred to as the Korean Crab Apple is light yellow interior with a tear drop elongated shape and if ripe has a light tartness, and almost ripe has a tart flavor great for sauces and jellies. It’s one of the few Crab Apples you can eat out of the hand.

When fully ripe this Crab Apple is sweet and crunchy, its elongated shape is a sure sign that you've found the right tree.

When fully ripe this Crab Apple is sweet and crunchy, its elongated shape is a sure sign that you’ve found the right tree.

This week, separately we both found a small round Crab Apple that has a bright pink interior that is tart without any sign of bitterness that will make a great apple sauce, jelly, or compliment as a savory sauce for a braised meat dish.

This small red Crab Apple has a pink interior and a tart finish. Be sure you pick only from trees without tannin, some look a likes will pucker your mouth.

This small red Crab Apple has a pink interior and a tart finish. Be sure you pick only from trees without tannin, some look a likes will pucker your mouth.

Last week Dawn spotted about five pound of Letiporus sulphereus, the Chicken of the Woods Mushroom, all at its peak of freshness. She made a Vegan Lentil Pecan Chicken Salad that was simply amazing hot or cold! The difference in flavors, textures and color had me guessing that I was eating a fine meat dish.

Dawn Chicken 2Dawn Chicken 1

With the cool weather and rain in middle August, the Maitake are already fruiting, an 11 pound specimen was found in the woods just North of the City of Chicago this afternoon by David Odd of Odd Produce. The earliest I’ve ever found one is the last week of August.

This 11 Pound Specimen will be on dinner plates in one of Chicago's finest restaurants by Wednesday night. (Photo Dave Odd of Odd Produce, Chicago's Wild Food Supplier)

This 11 Pound Specimen will be on dinner plates in one of Chicago’s finest restaurants by Wednesday night.
(Photo Dave Odd of Odd Produce, Chicago’s Wild Food Supplier)

Last year was so dry until late September that Maitake didn’t really fruit until the first weeks of October, though with phenomenal results. With the average rains, though off the usual schedule I predict this early Maitake fruiting will be the usual 200 pound local harvest, as opposed to the bounteous year like last year. Ringed Honey Mushrooms are out in certain spots, and last week I found a few aborted Entolomas directly at the bark line of a dead tree – but not enough for a meal, surely most of the fall mushrooms are coming along very soon.

I’ll update in a few days as I head out to finish both the Wild Grape Harvest, and the Elderberry Harvest, while searching for Chicken Mushroom and very early Maitake.

Liqueur Time! Making Delicious Homemade Liqueurs is Easier Than You Think!

It’s been about four years since Dawn and I made our first Nocino. The Italian Walnut Liqueur is a staple for many families fall meals, used as an aperitif, or a digestif – served before or after a meal, and sometimes as a topping for iced cream, fall is when it’s most enjoyed, but we make enough to break a little out when we really want to wow guests.

Black Walnut stains, you, your tools and your clean up towels, but it's second to butternut!

Black Walnut stains, you, your tools and your clean up towels, but it’s second to butternut!

That first batch was terrible! It was bitter – we had added foraged Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), thinking for some reason that the addition would make a nice balance to the sweetness we’d add later. It was terrible, bitter, full of tannin from the walnuts and bitterness from the wild prairie plant.  I gave up on it after trying it, filtering it several times, and letting it age until fall. Nothing helped. A year later I had stripped an antique American Walnut table and was researching old fashioned, home made stains. Dawn mentioned that we had had made our own stain extracting the worst out of the black walnuts.

It was about 100 degrees, and I knelt on the grass to test the “Walnut Stain” on a piece of scrap wood, you couldn’t see sunlight through the bottle. The stain took well, but the sweet and nutty smell coming from the warm wood was too much. I looked at the bottle that had aged two years, I looked at the stain sample, and looked at the bottle again. I picked up the cork to smell, then I actually licked the cork – no tannin!

Slowly I put what I had been considering the bottle of walnut stain to my lips and took a tentative swallow. It was amazing, simply delicious, if anything it was too overpowering with the nut flavor. We had succeeded, though it took two years of aging. Frankly, this was one of the most amazing drink additives, mixers, or liqueurs I’d ever tried!

Last year we kind of went nuts (pun intended) making Nocino, Wild Blackberry, Elderflower, Elder Berry, Vanilla, Vanilla Pomegranate Liqueurs as well as Vodka infusions of Rosemary, and Cardamon (instead of Moscow, think Mumbai Mule!)

The Elderflower is simply amazing – a fruity, flower perfumed liqueur with hint of vanilla and slight notes of citrus, it’s too flavorful to drink more than a slight ounce on the rocks, or as a mix into a Left Bank, a Martini with white wine, Elderflower liqueur and a London Dry Gin.

The Elderberry Liqueur has an incredible flavor, powerful fruity flavor, almost like a Jolly Rancher – Elderberry flavor! Although nice as an aperitif, the best use was in a mixed drink, 2 ounces of good vodka and 1/2 ounce of liqueur on the rocks was lovely.

After investing in several cases of .375 liqueur bottles with which we could present our liqueurs while entertaining or as hostess gifts and Christmas presents we found that we couldn’t fill them all. Make no mistake, this won’t happen again.

Extraction of the essential flavors from nuts and flowers is startlingly simple, and as I found out, even ridiculous mistakes can be overcome with aging. Previous years we’ve used excellent vodka, cheap vodka, tried good rums, cheap tequila, and even mixed bourbon in the steeping. All our experiments worked out.

The cheapest vodka, with a horrible cleaning fluid smell (You know who you are Mr. Boston!) but ages down into a mellow and tame liqueur given enough time – the best vodka also makes a fine liqueur and had the additional benefit of not needing to be aged an extra six months.

Our local Elderberry bushes had already given up their flower petals, and we had all but given up for a batch this year. Yesterday afternoon, after giving up a last minute peach picking trip we settled on a trip to one of my favorite woodlands in Chicago for an foray to find early Chanterelles. While we found no Chanterelles we did find several previously unnoticed Elderberry bushes.  I pulled less than 1/4 from each bush, settling for a decent sized batch of Elderflower Liqueur, but the woods kept giving and we passed bush after bush in full flower.

My friend Jenny and I cleaned the flower from the poisonous and bitter stems, spending an hour or two carefully pulling only the petals. At some point Jenny came up with the idea of keeping the flowers – stems and all, in a plastic bag and giving them a good shake. After a few minutes she had double what we had pulled from hand and we quickly soaked out bounty in Everclear Grain alcohol.

Elderflower

After reading all winter about flavor extraction, earlier this spring Dawn and I settled on the use of 195 proof grain alcohol. While there is supposedly no flavor the grain alcohol has a uniquely laboratory aftertaste, but the flavor extraction is said to be more pure and supposedly faster.

It’s been about 6 weeks since I started this post, and have come with the frustrating idea that we should have run our Everclear through a Brita type filter, some sand filter with activated charcoal to take the worst of the raw liquor flavors out – but this good news I managed to harvest over 10 pounds of Elderberries yesterday, some of which will go into an Elderberry Liqueur, and some will go to some of Chicago’s finest restaurants. Some of the bushes have double that amount ripening right now, but that’s another post!

Remember, only the darkest berries are ripe. I usually ignore the green, pick all the berries off the stem carefully, then drop them in a bowl of cool water, what floats gets tossed int eh compost pile!

Remember, only the darkest berries are ripe. I usually ignore the green, pick all the berries off the stem carefully, then drop them in a bowl of cool water, what floats gets tossed in the compost pile!

Dawn came home from a trip to her parents in New Palestine, Indiana this afternoon (about six weeks ago now) with Black Walnuts for Nocino, a bag of Butternuts and a bag of “Sweet” Hickory Nuts (as opposed to Pignut Hickory Nuts) and we spent the afternoon chopping and bottling our bounty. We’ve got four or five quarts of Black Walnut, two quarts of Hickory Nut and two quarts of Butternut as well as five quarts of Elderflower.

We’ve now cut the Elderflower Liqueur and added simple and some other very light spices, and poured off the Nocino, though we’ve not cut it or flavored it, we’ll wait for to age at 190 proof for a few more weeks, then add our Vanilla Everclear – Dawn has a co-worker who travels to Western Africa each year to a family vanilla plantation, and of course, again, graced us with a half dozen very fresh vanilla beans. This year we decided to try making a Dry Vermouth out of the Black Walnuts. We’ve been steeping the alcohol infused walnuts in a decent Pinot Grigio in the refrigerator for three weeks, and Saturday we’ll pour it off and run through coffee filters and spice it up and add a little more alcohol to bring the proof up to about 18 24, and let the spices of their things.

We’ll also experiment with a small batch of Nocino, and use the Wine to bring the alcohol level down to about 80 proof, hoping that that will bring a different dimension to the entire process.

The Hickory and Butternuts are still steeping, waiting until we have an evening together to process. I’m sure that the solvent can’t take any more flavor out than it already has, so idling away beneath the sink shouldn’t hurt anything (Alright you purists, comment!)

We’ll be using straight vodka to make our Elderberry Liqueur, (Costco’s Kirkland brand is said to be a neutral vodka that doesn’t impart flavor at a great price) while this takes longer to pull the flavors out we don’t have to age as long, and a Jolly Rancher liqueur might be just what we need next month as the days grow shorter.

With the case of 12 – .750 liter bottles we’ll have about 34 quarts of 60 proof liqueur, the traditional strength.

Enjoy the encouragement, and whatever you do, don’t not do it!