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Thursday, April 17, 2003 02:33 pm

The hunt is on!

It’s morel mushroom season in central Illinois

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When the April days grow warmer and trees begin bursting with buds, the phone at the Main Street Tap in Beardstown starts ringing. "Everybody's getting itchy," says Donnie Herter, owner of the bar. No it's not springtime allergies he's talking about. It's the local customers who are eagerly awaiting their first taste of morel mushrooms.

Herter, who began hunting morels about 10 years ago, says he hunts them just for exercise and a chance to enjoy the great outdoors. But he knows about a lot of die-hard mushroom hunters who live to search for the elusive mushrooms. "Some of them hunt from daylight to dark and walk for miles," he says. His taproom acts as kind of a clearinghouse for the local mushroom trade this time of year, and he keeps a list of about 100 people he notifies when the mushroom season is in full force.

Morels may not look like much, but the thrill of the hunt and its tasty reward make them such a treat. Morels are easy to identify. They look like conical sponges on stalks, but they are actually, hollow, rubbery, and brittle--much more brittle than other mushrooms--and tend to crumble and break easily. They are usually two to four inches tall, but by the end of their season some can reach up to 12 inches, says Herter.

Morels emerge from the ground when the weather turns warmer in the spring. The hunting season is short, usually lasting an average of four weeks. But it also varies: The season can be as short as a few days during a hot and dry spring, or as long as eight weeks during a cool and wet spring. The spongy signs start appearing in late March and early April, and the season works its way north as the weather gets warmer. The season in central Illinois is usually mid-April until early or mid-May.

Of course, mushroom hunters never reveal their secret spots. Typically morels are found in moist areas, around dying or dead elm trees, sycamore and ash trees, and old apple orchards. Ground cover varies, and it's very likely that each patch of mushrooms you come across may be growing in totally different conditions. Shroomers commonly hit the same spots year after year. If you are a first-time hunter, you should take your first expedition with someone who knows what a good morel looks like. There are several types, some edible and others poisonous.

Local chef Michael Higgins is one fan of the mighty morel. "They are a premium mushroom," he says. "They have an earthy flavor and go well with spring things, like peas, asparagus, spinach, and sweet onions." Higgins, owner of Maldaner's restaurant, thinks the best ones grow in Illinois and Michigan. "People around here have been raised with them. There are a lot of edible wild mushrooms, but most everyone thinks of morels."

His customers start calling this time of year to see when his popular morel pie will be added to the menu. He also prepares a morel sauce for a veal dish, as well as fried morels, depending on how many he can obtain. He says this year he hopes to offer the morel dishes "as soon as we can get them," probably the same time this paper will be on the streets. "Over the past few years, some of the larger retail stores in Chicago started selling them and they have gained a lot of popularity. The hunting places are more secret. The more secret they are, the harder they are to find; and the harder they are to find, the more the mystique grows. That all plays in to it."

While many people search out morels just for fun, the demand for wild mushrooms means big business for commercial hunters who sell their finds to restaurants, food stores, and even on the Internet. Tom and Vicky Nauman, owner of Morel Mania in Magnolia, have seen their hobby of mushroom hunting develop into a booming business. They sell all sorts of paraphernalia, from mushroom hunting sticks to hats to cutting boards to jewelry. They are also responsible for starting the state morel mushroom hunting championship, which now draws people from across the nation. While competitive hunters prowl for their elusive prize, other visitors can take part in cooking demonstrations, mushroom discussions, and various events. At auction, a half-pound of mushrooms can fetch up to $80, or as little as $5.

While there are many ways to prepare morels, one of the most common methods is also the simplest: After soaking them in lightly salted water for 10 minutes to remove any insects, simply slice and fry them in melted butter until browned. Another version involves draining the browned mushrooms, dipping them in milk and flour or an egg-milk mixture and cracker crumbs, and frying them.

If you don't want to hunt for your own morels, or aren't lucky enough to know someone who does, you can always purchase them at one of the following events:

•April 27: Grafton, 618-466-1442.

•May 2-3: The Illinois State Morel Mushroom Hunting Championship in Magnolia, 309-364-3319.

•May 10: Humungus Fungus Festival in Coal City, 815-634-0047.

For more information, contact Morel Mania, R.R. 1, Box 42, Magnolia, IL 61336. Phone: 309-364-3319. Fax: 309-364-2960. Web site: www.morelmania.com.

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