Minnesotans' favorite fungus has mushroomed in popularity and price. But is the morel "all that"?
In a quarter-century since migrating from the South, I've found it easy to embrace Minnesota's treasures: the lakes and the tasty walleye lurking in them; the towering male icons (Paul Bunyan and Garrison Keillor) and their wholesome female counterparts (Betty Crocker and Mary Richards); the State Fair and the way we chant "ooooh" in the "Minnesota Rouser."
But there's one notable exception: I don't "get" morels. Oh, they're tasty enough, better than some mushrooms, fun to look at and touch. As far as a flavor assessment goes, though, in my adopted parlance they're "interesting."
So why is a pound of morels fetching up to $60, the same as a season-long senior pass at Valleyfair, and almost twice as much as the same amount of lump crabmeat?
The reasons, according to two local chefs, are many and varied: morels' status as the lone spring-sprouting mushroom, the thrill of "the hunt," an earlier season than usual and the "foodie" movement, especially among younger adults.
And perhaps just a bit of bandwagon craziness, according to one of the region's foremost locavores. "I don't understand what's going on," said Lenny Russo, chef and owner of St. Paul's Heartland restaurant. "People paying that much don't know what they're doing.
"I don't know if they think they're going to have some kind of transcendental experience with these, but morels are not that mushroom."
Russo likes morels, but not as much as several other mushrooms, citing porcini, golden chanterelle, hen of the woods and matsutake. A counterpoint comes from counterpart Don Saunders of In Season restaurant in Minneapolis.
"Flavor-wise, I do think they're 'all that,'" Saunders said. "Another factor that makes them so cool is that they pair so well with almost any other fun spring ingredients: ramps, peas, artichokes, wild salmon, lamb, fiddleheads, wild greens, etc.
"It's the idea that things that grow wild around each other will make sense to eat together. Catch a wild trout and find morels, fiddleheads and ramps right by the river, then sauté all that together and you have a magical combination."
Saunders also touts the flavor of Minnesota morels over those from other locales, and he especially likes their versatility in the kitchen. At a three-night morel fest May 18 to 20, he and morel-meister Jim Kyndberg will be serving them pickled, paired with sweetbreads, lamb and salmon and even in ice cream. "Many other mushrooms are too one-dimensional flavor-wise to have the ability to do this," he said.
Given the state of the marketplace, the $70 tab for the In Season multi-course meal might just be reasonable. Morels are following only half of the world's oldest business law: The supply is way up because of the wacky weather, but the demand clearly is up even more.
"It's a bumper-crop year, so if anything we should be seeing lower prices," said Russo, who bought 15 pounds early on at $9 a pound, then saw the prices (sorry) mushroom out of control.
"I think a lot of it is exotic young foodies who want to try something that maybe they haven't experienced before. But it's really screwing things up for those of us who have been doing it for 20 years. They've pretty much pushed the market beyond our reach."
Especially for those of us who blanched a couple of years ago at paying $20 a pound. Oh, well, given how summers fly around here, it will be golden chanterelle season soon enough.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643
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