In the North, morel season lasts mere weeks. Every spring, foragers come from near and far to partake in the mushroom madness. Sure, the bounty can bring some $50 a pound, but that’s not the draw. Ask any die-hard, and you’ll get your answer: It’s the thrill of the hunt that keeps them coming back. So much so that fanatics often take time off to descend upon undisclosed locales — veterans rarely reveal their secret hot spots — to search for prized specimen.
“Even if you aren’t a fan of eating the mushroom, the exhilaration after a successful hunt is surprisingly addictive,” says Mike Kempenich, owner of Gentleman Forager, a Minneapolis-based company that offers guided adventures, identification courses and the like. He left a lucrative executive-recruiting career nearly a decade ago to focus his time and talent on fungi.
“My father taught me how to find morels as a young boy,” he notes. “I think those memories of picking morels and wild asparagus with him are still very easy to revisit each time I am in the woods.” And it seems this return to nature is an undeniable part of the hobby’s appeal: “People are considering the road less traveled as they look for alternatives to our electronic age,” Kempenich adds. “Tuning out for a while and being rewarded with a fantastic meal while you commune with the natural world is a great option.”
Once overnight temps reach 50 degrees — around the time lilacs start blooming and dandelions begin going to seed — morels start popping up and the hunt is on. A typical day involves some six hours spent in the woods, scavenging for elusive specimen and steering clear of false morels (lookalikes that are inedible and can even be poisonous). There is, however, no such thing as a typical take. Foragers are as likely to go home empty-handed as they are to hit the mother lode, gathering up dozens of tiny treasures in their wicker baskets.
Fungi fever has hit an all-time high. Last year, hundreds of attendees enjoyed the inaugural MN Morel Fest, an open-air event held in Minneapolis featuring “mushrooms, music and more,” including fare from such top culinary talent as James Beard winner Gavin Kaysen (Spoon and Stable) and Jim Christiansen (Heyday), one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs. Aficionados and amateurs alike can partake when the festival returns this May.
Lest you find yourself without an enviable bounty come the end of morel season, fret not. “Although morels are by far the most popular mushroom we hunt in Minnesota, they are but a blip on the radar screen,” says Kempenich. “Most people are surprised to learn that our full mushroom season runs from May until the end of October and that Gentleman Forager harvests more than 40 edible species of exotic mushrooms right here in Minnesota. When people learn they can find mushrooms beyond the brief two weeks in May when morels are available, they often find a hobby for life.”