Welcome to the 11th episode of the St. Albert Signal, a weekly community podcast about the St. Albert area. Listen to the 11th episode below:
Wading through the thick grass in Riverlot 56, mushroom hunting feels a lot like hunting for treasure – looking for clues, tracking your steps, trying to remember exactly where your fellow hunters told you where 'x' marks the spot.
Finding the elusive fungi involves patience and determination – be prepared to walk, and walk, and walk. But mushroom hunter and St. Albert city councillor Natalie Joly said it's all worth it in the end.
"It's a dopamine hit, absolutely," Joly said, slowly scanning the ground. "It's lots of fun."
This week, Joly took the St. Albert Signal on a hunt for morel mushrooms, a prized possession of chefs and fungi enthusiasts.
Morels have a quick window of opportunity in Alberta with the season stretching over a few months each spring. This mushroom is a feature of many cuisines around the world, as they are regarded for their "meaty," nutty flavour, texture, and appearance.
"They're almost Christmas-tree shaped," she said. "I describe them to my kids – it's kind of like brains, that rippled texture on them. They're hollow on the inside, so if you cut them open, the cap, the top mushroom, is attached to the stem. That's one of the easy ways to identify them."
Black morels are fairly common in central Alberta, and they like to live in disturbed soil in a sunny spot, Joly said.
"They like to run right along the sides of the trail, so that's what I'm looking for. This time of year, they seem to be in places where it's a little bit warmer."
Joly said she started getting into mushroom hunting a few years ago when she started taking pictures of them on her hikes. "They're really beautiful," she said. Then she started learning more about mushrooms, and the benefits of foraging for them yourself.
"It's just a really fun hobby, and it's good to eat food where you know where it comes from," she said.
After harvesting, she gives the morels a quick rinse to clean them off (forget everything you've been told about not washing mushrooms with water when it comes to morels). She then puts them in a dehydrator to dry out the mushrooms and preserve them year-round. To rehydrate them, simply soak the morels in salt water for at least 10 minutes before cooking (note that all morels should never be eaten raw).
"We had over 400 (morels) on the weekend and probably another hundred the previous weekend. So that's enough mushrooms to last us, our family, for a year," Joly said. "Last weekend, we fried up some morels with garlic, put in some dandelion greens, and had that on pasta. It's great."
Harvesting mushrooms has become a weekend-long activity for her family, as they spend hours outdoors looking for fungi. It's also an opportunity to teach her children about mushrooms.
"I love that my kids have an idea of where food comes from. It's not this abstract concept, like 'I get my food at the grocery store.' They understand that this is how food grows." Alas, the elusive morel mushroom managed to evade this Signal reporter's grasp for another day.
If you're new to the mushroom foraging world, it's important to make sure you're taking an expert with you, like someone from the Alberta Mycological Society, Joly stressed. Alberta is home to many wild mushrooms, some are edible, but others can be deadly. "People should have a healthy fear of mushrooms and wild plants."
But Joly has a few tips for experienced mushroom hunters looking for their next treasure trove. Talk to farmers in rural areas of the province if you can get permission to hunt on their land, she said.
"That's your best bet because you're not going to have a lot of foot traffic so people aren't looking, and you'll have more luck there."