Wild Treasure Hunt
If You Know How And Where to Look, The Season's Prized Produce Can Become A Free Meal

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

It has been more than two hours since Katie Letcher Lyle first entered a verdant mountain range near Lexington, Va., armed with plastic baggies and an optimist's mind-set: She will find morels. During the pursuit on this fine spring day, she has stumbled over rocks, crouched beneath fallen trees and been momentarily trapped in a cage of brambles and branches. Her efforts have not been fruitless; her canvas tote is slowly filling with the coveted mushrooms.

After a long morning of foraging, the rest of the group is ready to cash out. But Lyle wants to take one last look, so she meanders down a grassy slope that fringes a forest. She disappears for one minute, two -- and then come the screams of delight.

"Oh, my God! I can't believe what I found," she hollers. "I just walked into the woods and there they were, an entire patch. I've never seen anything like this. I dream about finding morels like these."

The wild-edibles expert and author has stumbled upon a forager's pot of gold: a small square of forest carpeted with the prized fungi. "They were all twisted and growing on top of each other," she says, holding up an overstuffed bag that includes a morel the size of a green bell pepper. "I think I just picked 34 in one minute."

To be sure, morel season is upon us: In the mid-Atlantic region, Morchella start appearing in early spring and last through mid-May, longer if the weather stays wet and cool. (See accompanying story for facts about morels and tips on foraging.) And when the mushrooms begin to pop up, so do the avid pickers.

"Finding a morel makes it 10 times more valuable than if someone gave it you," says Steve Rinella, a 34-year-old writer whose "The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine" recounts how he reconstructed a 45-course Escoffier banquet using only foods he'd hunted and gathered around the country. "It awakens you to this realization that, wow, nature makes some really cool things to eat."

Foragers do not feast on morels alone. A wealth of edibles ripe for the kitchen -- spearmint, watercress, wild garlic, wineberries and more -- grow in areas rural and urban. The plants take root in back yards and parks, and along skinny strips of vegetation lining roads. Even that unsightly weed patch can harbor tasty salad fixings. (Note: Beginning foragers should go out with an expert and study field guides to avoid picking toxic plants. Also, forage only in legal areas; check signs or contact the official group that oversees the property.)

"In all of history, 99 percent of human existence was based on foraging and hunting," says John Kallas, founder of the Institute for the Study of Edible Wild Plants and Other Foragables, a learning center in Oregon. "We are so far removed from our foraging history now, but humans still feel a primal connection to the earth."

Besides tapping into our primordial shopping habits, foraging has other draws. Food found in nature is joyfully free, a welcome respite in this time of soaring prices. (At retail, Lyle's morels might cost over $50 a pound.) The burgeoning organic movement and local-foods trend also have made consumers more aware of the provenance of ingredients and the journey from seed to plate. And, of course, there's the "Lost"-like drama of venturing deep into the wild for a snack.

"I've never gotten over my kiddish delight in finding morels," says Lyle, who has the energy level of a puppy.

The 69-year-old author of books about wild edibles (complete with companion recipes) has been foraging since she was weed-high. One of her earliest memories involves a dad-and-daughter-and-lobster outing in San Diego: Her father came across the crustaceans during a day at the beach and, lacking a suitable carrier, used her portable potty to transport the critters home.

For about 34 years, Lyle has scouted for morels with her friend Burwell Wingfield, 69, a retired plant pathologist who taught at the Virginia Military Institute. Wingfield's wife, Wafa, sometimes accompanies them. (A 42-year-old linguist, she has shrooms in her DNA; back in Jordan, her father is known as the Mushroom Man for his work in fungus cultivation.) "We only talk during springtime," Lyle jokes. "I'll call him and ask, 'Is it time yet? Are they out?' "

A few weekends ago, they were indeed out -- they being Lyle, the Wingfields and unknown quantities of morels. The day's plan was to hunt for the mushrooms in the morning, then spend the afternoon scouring for greens, which would be paired with the main dish. Once the foraging was complete, Lyle would whip up a meal based on the bounty.

Locating morel territory is pretty textbook, and many foragers return to their lucky spots throughout the season, if not the years. (Many fungus hunters treat their specific locales as if they were classified secrets.)

The mushroom, which comes in four varieties, is known to grow near tulip poplars and dying elms and in abandoned apple orchards and burn areas. However, actually finding the elusive morel -- nickname "miracle" -- is no cinch. With its dimpled earth-tone cap and rigatoni-shape stem, it easily can be dismissed as a clump of dirt or nubby pebble.

"It's a big mystery whether you are going to find them," says Lyle, who has come home from past excursions fully loaded and nearly empty-handed. "You can look at them in one direction, find one, turn and find two you didn't see before."

For this Sunday outing, the group's chosen spot is a rugged slope reached by a winding path strewn with rocks and branches. As they amble along, Wingfield occasionally yanks a plant for show and tell: wild ginger ("add a pinch to a roast for extra zip"), chicory ("use the early leaves in a salad") and an orange jelly fungus ("almost every bowl of Chinese sweet-and-sour soup has this") that quickly disappears into his mouth.

About 30 minutes into the hike, eagle-eyed Lyle scores her first morel: "Ooh, a black one. Hooray!" Scrambling up a steep incline as if she were part longhorn sheep, she pulls up three more. "Aha, I found another one," she says. "Damn, I just walked over that one." Make that six.

Meanwhile, Wingfield has discovered a flush, or large congregation, of mushrooms in a space no larger than a child's sandbox. He pockets 16 morels, an enviable take.

Back at the road, Lyle sets up a picnic of shortbread cookies and Godiva chocolate on the hood of her car while the crew counts its spoils. Team Wingfield has 66, four shy of Lyle. That is, until she wanders a little way off and finds her dreamscape. Her final count: 105.

On the drive back, Lyle suddenly pulls to the side of the road, grabs a pair of scissors and a plastic bag (she's always prepared) and dashes over to a bouquet of green stalks. "This will make a nice seasoning for the morels," she says, gripping a handful of pungent wild onions.

Earlier, Lyle had jotted down a wish list of greens, including garlic mustard, watercress, catnip, wild asparagus, milkweed and lamb's quarters. But before heading out, she had crossed out a couple of the items: She suspects that the wild asparagus on a back road to Goshen has been mowed clean and that she has weeded out all the poke in her garden.

In contrast, watercress is plentiful and pervasive, and Lyle knows exactly where to find it. She drives straight for a creek burbling along a country road, near a barn stooped over from age. Armed with a kitchen knife and rain boots, she shimmies down the short bank and starts whacking away, filling three plastic sacks. Nearby, at a retirement community, she bags some upland cress and a few sprigs of spearmint for mint juleps.

Near the VMI baseball stadium she walks along the overgrown fringes of a recreational trail, pointing out milkweed and some blackberry bushes weeks away from picking. She lingers at some chickweed -- "makes you thin" -- and then makes a beeline for the garlic mustard. She crushes a palm-size leaf that smells like an Italian kitchen.

On the final stop, she races over to a parcel of land abutting the college campus. "Oh, tell me they haven't cut it all down?" she asks. Nope, the mustard greens are still there; ditto the catnip, which she takes as a gift to her cats.

"I just love wild foraging," she muses on the drive back to her Lexington home, the back seat piled high with greenery.

In her kitchen, a charmingly cluttered space, Lyle scoops up some morels (a mix of white and black), slices them lengthwise and soaks them in saltwater to flush out any stowaway bugs. She heats up peanut oil (neutral, to avoid competing flavors) and butter, then tosses in the mushrooms with a bit of wild onion. She steams the garlic mustard in a separate pan, toasts a few slices of white bread and sets the table in mismatched dinnerware.

The morels form a precarious tower atop the toast, nearly toppling over and onto the steaming heap of garlic mustard. The meal is simple, yet it has quite a story, which makes it all the more delicious.

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