Ohio’s Hocking Hills, a rural recreation area about an hour south of Columbus, is known for its natural beauty, and looks nothing like other parts of the flat state. It boasts caves, waterfalls, gorges, forests and nature preserves where you can hike, kayak, canoe and numerous other outdoor pursuits – including morel mushroom hunting.
Morel mushrooms are known among chefs and foodies as the gold standard of funghi. These mushrooms, which can grow more than a foot in size, have a honeycomb shaped head and a distinctive earthy taste. You can use them in place of regular mushrooms in almost any dish, or coat them in a light crumb or cracker crust and fry them up in butter (as one of our hosts, Terry of the Inn at Cedar Falls, is doing in the picture above).
Because morels can sell up to $45 a pound, experienced mushroom hunters generally keep their favorite hunting spots under wraps. But we were lucky enough to go on a mushroom hike with amateur mycologist Andrea Moore through Tar Hollow State Park, a gorgeous 604-acre park outside Laurelville.
It was drizzling as we started our hunt, but that didn’t stop Andrea from charging through the brush. We gamely followed, stepping through nettles and pushing back underbrush.
Morels lie off the beaten path, often close to dying or dead Elm trees, Sycamore and Ash trees or in old apple orchards. Andrea told us to keep an eye out for crushed-up cans lying near trees,, as often successful morel hunters will put them down in a successful hunting spot so they can remember it for next year (morel hunters are nothing if not competitive; Andrea removed the cans when she saw them).
Andrea also showed us her morel hunting bag, made of mesh. The holes in the bag allow the mushroom’s spores to fall out as you walk, spreading the seeds for future hunts. (Andrea is wearing an orange vest so she’s visible to any turkey hunters who might be in the area).
In the end, we left the forest empty-handed. No matter; there are enough chefs in the area with their own secret morel spots that I was able to consume my fill.
They tasted particularly good in a quiche at the Glenlaurel Inn in Rockbridge. Delicious!
If you want to do your own mushroom hunt, the Ohio Mushroom Society holds guided hikes, talks and other events during the season (generally March through early May). I kept thinking that mushroom hunting would be a great way to lure couch-bound kids into the woods. It would also be fun for anyone with a foodie bent. You should go out with an expert once or twice, just so you don’t pick the wrong mushroom (the false morel looks quite a bit like its cousin, only it is poisonous).
Have you ever gone mushroom hunting before? If so, where? (I know that several states have different seasons).