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Confessions of a mushroom hunter

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A sample of Karl Dittman's 2015 Morel mushroom harvest

Morel mushroom hunting is the latest big trend across the country among both healthy food enthusiasts and outdoor recreationists. Unlike in the big cities, however, the curious will not find only hipster upstarts hunting morels in the Ozarks’ woods, but instead some of the most seasoned, successful and secretive shroomers in the whole state.

Among those in Dent County with the most experience is Karl Dittman. Dittman has been hunting morels since he was nine years old and learned the ways of the mushrooms from his father.

Seasoned foragers such as Dittman are notoriously tight-lipped on the subject of mushroom hunting, but in consideration of the public interest, Dittman agreed to share some of his wisdom with The Salem News in an interview Friday.

A sample of karl Dittman's 2015 morel harvest

Foragers seeking the best morels should seek out ash and apple trees, according to local mushroom hunting expert Karl Dittman.

The Hunt

Morels are one of the most elusive and mysterious mushrooms hunted in Missouri, according to Dittman. Attempts to farm the fungus have all notoriously failed, meaning those seeking this delicacy will have to forage for them in the wild.

Although many say finding mushrooms is pure luck, Dittman has been able to collect many bountiful harvests over the years by following a few simple rules.

Spring is the best time to find morels, according to Dittman.

“You have to go out in the spring after the first two or three nights of lows above 50 and highs in the upper 70s,” says Dittman. “Usually that means the second week of April to the first week of May.”

The next big indicator is wood, says Dittman. Mushrooms are fungi, and thrive off decaying matter, meaning rotting wood is a good place to hunt. However, hunters seeking morels should keep an eye out for ash and apple trees.

“Those two trees are best for finding morels,” Dittman says. “Especially after the tree dies and the bark lies in a pile on the ground. After five to seven years those spots will have big patches of morels. Sycamore, elm and walnut trees will also attract morels, but never oak. If you find a morel in an oak forest, take a look around, because I bet there is an ash tree close by.”

Another good indicator is geography.

“Good places to look are in draws (narrow valleys) and river bottoms,” says Dittman. “You want to find a place that’s moist, but not wet, they won’t grow if it’s too wet. It has to not be too wet or too dry.”

Mushrooming Equipment

“Mushroom hunting is a great activity for the whole family and does not require a lot of expensive equipment,” Dittman says.

The essential items to include in a hunt are a foraging bag, a mushrooming stick, coveralls and a good tick spray.

Porous onion and potato sacks make the best foraging bags, says Dittman. The holes allow the spores to spread, which encourages the mushroom’s regeneration. Plastic bags are not ideal as they dry out the mushrooms on sunny days.

A good stick is a very useful tool for mushroom hunting, says Dittman. They not only allow for a more comfortable hike, but come in handy for finding mushrooms that are hidden underneath leaves.

“Many people don’t know this, but the morels grow underneath the leaves sideways,” says Dittman. “When they are ready to spore, then they shoot up vertically into the air, but I’d say 90 percent of its growth takes place under the leaves. So it’s a good idea to brush the leaves aside in a good hunting spot to see if any are under there.”

The stick can also come in handy for other uses, says Dittman.

“When my dad and I went hunting in the Missouri river bottoms he would use that stick more on snakes than for mushrooms,” he said.

Another big safety item is coveralls.

“I know a lot of people like to put on overalls with the suspenders, but I like coveralls,” Dittman says. “There’s no place for the ticks to crawl in like there is with overalls. The other big thing you need is a good can of tick spray. I use the tick spray you can spray right on your clothes. It worked so well for me this year I even soaked my boots in it.”

Cooking Morels

There are many ways to cook morels, but Dittman prefers them fried.

“First thing you have to do is soak them in salt water for a couple hours. Some people do it overnight, but I think that makes the mushrooms too mushy.” he says. “Once they’re ready to cook, cut them down the middle and clean them out. Then pad them down with a paper towel to make sure you get the water out of there. Put some corn oil in a pan and set it for medium heat. Next, I’ll run the mushrooms through a mixture of milk and eggs before breading them with some Uncle Buck Chicken Fry. Fry that in a pan for four minutes and you’re done.”

Other suggestions Dittman has for serving morels are with scrambled eggs and sautéed in butter.

When asked to describe the taste of a Morel to the uninitiated, Dittman’s eyes light up and his tone sudden plunges to a whisper.

“There just, you know, there just… really good,” he says leaning in as if sharing a secret. “There’s just no comparison, they’re the best I’ve ever had.”

Etiquette

“Never ask a hunter where they got their mushrooms,” says Dittman. “I posted some pictures to Facebook this past year, but I had to take them down after everyone started getting too curious.”

By that same token, don’t tell anyone about the best spots, says Dittman.

“As soon as you tell someone, that’s it, you’re done,” he says. “The next thing you know, everyone will be there and all the morels will be gone.”

The other important thing to remember for hunters is to respect the mushrooms’ cycle of life.

“People will say I’m crazy and that no one leaves mushrooms on the ground,” says Dittman. “But it’s still a good idea to leave some behind so that they can grow back next year. You should not pick the ground clean.”