Pete Kelly spots our quarry behind an elm root standing like a fin at the base of a dying tree: two fresh morel mushrooms, their pocked conical caps protruding from the duff on a horizontal trajectory. He gestured toward a third, drier morel a yard away. This was our bounty for a few hours of wandering through stands of oak and elm, through calf-high groves of mayapples and ostrich fern on various public and (sanctioned) private lands near Spring Green.
A bad outing.
"I've had terrible bad luck this year," admits Kelly, shaking his head. A professional cook and former sous chef at L'Etoile, Kelly has been foraging regularly for three years. Cool weather has limited morels this year, but watercress, ramps (wild leeks) and fiddleheads - coiled, tender shoots of ferns - have yielded to hunters. These plants and fungi joint a long list of wild edibles that throughout the year drive small crowds to tromp, heads down, through Wisconsin woodlands.
Watercress can be harvested throughout winter and spring. Fiddleheads and ramps, sorrel, wild asparagus, cattails - often prepared sous-vide, sealed in plastic and warmed in a water bath to release cucumber-like texture and flavor - can be found through late May. Foragers also find buckhorn and even bracken fern, which becomes toxic later in the season. Hunters forage black trumpets in late June, yellowfoot chantarelles and king boletes (porcini) in July, lobster mushrooms in August.
As summer progresses, harvests include black raspberries, red raspberries, currants, gooseberries, elderberries and blackberries. Fall features mushrooms: hen-of-the-woods and chicken-of-the-woods, puffballs, and honey mushrooms.
"About 50% of our menu in early spring highlights foraged ingredients," said Ben Hunter of Underground Food Collective. By late May, this tapers to 20% or 30%, Hunter figures, then dips in June before climbing again through summer toward fall. Hunter occasionally takes staff out foraging, and otherwise buys products from several foragers in town.
"They call you," says Kelly. "You don't really call them."
Kelly was drawn into foraging when Joe Skulan, a UW-Madison biologist who works at the Geology Museum, arrived at L'Etoile bearing a large bag. "He just showed up at the restaurant in the summer with chantarelles," Kelly recalls. "He comes in with sticks and leaves in his hair, mud-coated boots."
Dig into local foraging, and you soon come across Skulan's name. He sells watercress, ramps, chantarelles, lobster mushrooms and more to L'Etoile and Underground. Skulan has foraged since childhood in upstate New York, a pupil of his mother. "She'd make my dad stop the car when she saw watercress," Skulan says.
Skulan, who holds a Ph.D. in biology from Berkeley, teaches paleontology and hunts fossils. He also helps feed himself and his two children on wild harvests, favoring watercress, berries, wild grapes and plums, as well as mushrooms almost year-round.
Restaurants, of course, hardly monopolize foraged produce in Wisconsin. Jim Stich, park resident at Governor Nelson State Park north of Madison, has been hunting morels and puffballs for about a decade. "I kind of stumbled on morels up at the Parfrey's Glen area," Stich, a carpenter, says.
For most foragers, wild food simply tastes better. Hunter compares commercial and wild watercress. "It's a different product altogether," he says. He and colleagues find commercial watercress overly peppery and otherwise bland. Kelly concurs. "I won't use commercial watercress."
Skulan echoes the sentiment, describing wild grapes as an untapped resource. He presses the fruit for juice concentrate and to make dark, opaque preserves. "Black jam has a very complicated, spicy, grassy flavor," says Skulan. "It's perfect for wild game."
This weekend many will hit the woods and local parks searching for morels. But "it's the very tail end of a very poor morel season," Skulan says. Even in the best of conditions, foragers in-the-know may not always share their favorite spots. "A lot of people," notes Kelly's wife, Jenn, a kitchen manager at Underground, "don't want other people looking for this stuff."