Wild Treasure Hunt

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

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008; Page F01

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?' "

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