To some they're a delicacy, to others they taste of dirt. From Don Lecy's perspective the best thing one can do is decide for themselves. At worst, hunting for the elusive morel mushroom will result in a little exercise.
Lecy is a long-time Granite Falls resident and retired beat plant worker who for the past 45 years has spent a few weeks out of every spring scouring the forests and riverbanks for morel mushrooms.
The spongy fungi with a honey-comb like head is considered one of the prize mushrooms when it comes to the culinary arts. And, as it just so happens, can be found in relative abundance along the Minnesota River Valley.
"I do a lot of looking around the area," said Lecy during an interview last week. "They've been here a week or so and they'll be here another week or two before they're done."
According to the University of Minnesota Extension, a good rule of thumb for determining morel emergence is as soon as the lilacs bloom, early to mid-May. Lecy said he has found them along well traveled avenues such as the Memorial Park bike path and, otherwise, locates them in woody, wet areas along river and stream banks of the valley.
The year to year harvest varies greatly depending on the current climate as well as weather from preceding years. In 2012, Lecy said he hardly found any but 2013's offerings have been relatively bountiful.
"I looked for six hours on Sunday and found three pounds of morels," he said. "They just all of a sudden appear. You can walk by and see nothing there, and then all of a sudden... You have to train your eye and once you've done that you're sort of able to pick them out."
One of the wonderful things about morel hunting is that anyone can do it and very little preparation is needed. "It doesn't cost anything to get into it. All it takes is a walking stick and a pair of boots," Lecy said. "Its just another excuse to get out in the woods and walk. I've got a bad back so I do a lot of walking. And you might as well do something while you're walking."
To transport the morels, mesh type bags are often recommended for air circulation and because it allows mushroom spores to sprinkle onto the earth seeding future morels.
Given the proliferation of buckthorn and prickly ash, Lecy also suggested that individuals consider wearing long sleeves. In addition, he said it may be a good idea to scan for wood ticks once one's search is through.
According to Lecy, eight good sized morels, typically four to five inches in length, will feed two people a portion size that is relative to "a venison steak or a walleye."
Page 2 of 2 - They keep in the fridge for about a week, but for any greater length of time they should be frozen. Morels can also be dried and used in soups, although in Lecy's opinion the latter option is a waste.
The most common way to cook morels is to cut them in half, clean out any dirt or bugs with a cold water rinse, and then to cook the mushrooms on medium heat with a healthy dollop of butter, salt and peppered to taste.
"They have a nutty flavor," Lecy said. "Some people say it tastes like dirt, but it's just an earthy, nutty flavor. It is an acquired taste."
Lecy's mushroom hunts are typically solitary affairs, but occasionally he takes along grandson or a friend and occasionally he runs into a fellow wayward morel hunter.
Given the affinity of his own taste buds and the fact he has seen morels sell for as much as $35 a pound, it's a little surprising to him that the woods aren't full of a few more fellow mushroom finders.
With time that could easily change. After all, all it takes is a walking stick and pair of boots.