Bemidji wild edibles expert hits the mark with guided trips
Matt Breuer has collected morel mushrooms most of his life, and the springtime fungi have become a favorite of gatherers across the North Country.
So, it was only natural that Breuer would branch out to other wild edibles such as fiddleheads, chanterelles and wild onions, or “ramps,” when he moved to Bemidji, where he’s “aggressively” foraged the past half dozen years.
“It’s something we do from the end of April all the way through October,” said Breuer, 33, a sleep technologist at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. “There are mushrooms or wild edibles to be picked all season. We’ve got very good blueberry picking, and wild raspberries are very abundant, so there are a myriad of things to pick throughout the year.”
A Thief River Falls native, Breuer also operates North Country Guide Service offering guided hunting and fishing trips. But it’s the guided excursions for wild edibles that separate Breuer from most north woods guides.
This is Breuer’s third season offering guided wild edible trips, and last weekend, he and mycology expert “Mushroom Mike” Kempenich from the Mikeology Store in Minneapolis hosted the first annual “Black Morel Hootenanny,” which attracted 24 guests who learned to pick morels and what to look for when hunting other edibles. The day culminated with a feast prepared by Chef Alan Bergo of the Heartland Restaurant in Minneapolis featuring some of the morels and other edibles collected during the day.
“We’re going to do quite a few of them for quite a few different species,” Breuer said of the large group excursions.
There may be more, of course, but Breuer says he knows of only one other person in Minnesota — Kempenich — who guides for wild edibles. With a work schedule that gives Breuer three nights in the hospital sleep lab and four days off, it’s a perfect fit for the avid outdoorsman.
Breuer says he actually prefers the wild edible excursions over fishing trips, especially as summer progresses. The guide service has teamed up with several resorts in the Bemidji area, Breuer said, and he subcontracts with a couple of other local fishing guides to handle the walleye trips if he’s double-booked.
Hunting for edibles, Breuer says, draws a variety of clientele.
“We get a lot of older folks, retired people,” he said. “They’ve gotten more into the outdoorsy stuff and big into gardening. We also get a lot of people that are kind of on the primal movement and trying to live off the land and learn the wild edibles they can forage from the forest or prairie and live off the land, if you will.
“And we do have a lot of young up-and-comers,” he added. “They really want to get into this activity; people with young children want to get their kids outdoors and offer something other than fishing. It’s something that’s really taken off in the past few years. It’s become so popular, it’s crazy.”
This is prime time for morel mushrooms, and Breuer offered a few tips for finding the tasty fungi with the sponge-like, conical heads.
In Minnesota, basically from Brainerd north, Breuer said black morels are the most common species, while yellow morels are abundant farther south. To find yellow morels, Breuer suggests looking for dead elm trees or apple orchards and clear-cut areas.
Black morels, by comparison, grow best in wet, loamy soil with 15- to 20-year-old poplar stands.
“You find a clear-cut, and in 10-15-20 years, there’s going to be a lot of morels in that area,” Breuer said. “They’ll grow basically right out of the leaf litter. Patches of diamond willow in bottoms with poplar are prime.”
And this, perhaps, is Breuer’s best advice for finding black morels:
“Wherever you would find a lot of woodcock and where you can hear (ruffed) grouse drumming nearby, you know you’re in the right zone,” he said.
Morel pickers by nature are a secretive bunch, though, so newbies shouldn’t expect to get too many tips.
“I would give away 20 of my best fishing spots before I’d give away my favorite morel spot,” Breuer said. “Walleyes are going to move from spot to spot to spot, but morels don’t move. Year after year, we get the same spot, and if someone else is picking, they can clean it out and we don’t have a shot at them at all.
“So, it’s something that people guard heavily.”
The distinct appearance of morels makes them easy to differentiate from poisonous fungi, although a “false morel” that can make people sick and bears a slight resemblance also grows in some areas.
Unlike true morels, false morels are solid, and so pickers should follow the old adage, “if it’s not hollow, don’t swallow.”
In some ways, Breuer says, he’s surprised by the growing popularity of morel picking, considering the season coincides with prime tick time and the northward expansion of deer ticks, the tiny parasites known to carry Lyme disease.
“There are a lot of people that maybe are scared off by that, but I’m just really surprised it took off as quickly as it did,” he said. “Now everyone picks mushrooms, and everyone’s an expert. Five years ago, you’d tell people you were going mushroom picking, and they’d laugh at you.
“The competition has gotten much greater.”
The taste is a big part of the morel’s popularity, but Breuer says he actually prefers some of the later summer mushrooms.
“There’s just a stigma behind the morel, and it’s something that’s relatively easy once you figure it out,” Breuer said. “But once you’ve tasted something like a black trumpet or porcini, higher-end wild edibles, you’ll look at the morel a little differently.”
Foraging isn’t all about fungi, though, and greenery such as wild asparagus and fiddleheads, named for the tops of emerging ferns, are excellent either steamed, boiled or sautéed.
Fiddleheads must be cooked to be edible, though, and Breuer says novices should make sure they know what they’re picking and concentrate on ostrich ferns.
Some fern species are known to be carcinogenic.
“The biggest way to differentiate ostrich ferns is they’ll have a nice, deep-V groove in the stem,” Breuer said. “They’re really great and really abundant once you find them.”
For novice gatherers, Breuer recommends going with someone who knows what they’re looking for or hiring a guide. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offers occasional classes on wild edibles, as does the Mikeology Store.
The toxic mushrooms, or dangerous lookalikes, tend to be more abundant later in the summer, and that’s when people make mistakes, Breuer said.
“There are some edibles out there that can make you sick or are deadly,” he said. “You want to make sure of what you’ve got before you cook them. It’s not something to be taken lightly.”
- On the Web:
North Country Guide Service: www.northcountryguides.com.
The Mikeology Store: www.mikeologystore.com.
Be mindful of deer ticks when foraging
Matt Breuer logs a lot of time in the woods hunting morels and other wild edibles as part of his North Country Guide Service, but foraging also is a family affair for Breuer, wife Nikki and children Tate and Nora.
This time of year, that means coping with bugs and parasites such as deer ticks, the pinhead-sized carriers of Lyme disease.
Breuer, of Bemidji, says areas south of Bemidji such as Paul Bunyan State Forest, Schoolcraft Game Refuge and other sites near Park Rapids, Minn., are seeing increase in deer ticks.
“There’s no shortage of wood ticks either, but deer ticks have become dominant, and there are lots and lots and lots,” he said. “Every time we go, you’re picking off a minimum of a dozen, and after a good day of picking, we’ll pick 100 ticks off myself and the kids.”
Deer ticks are especially active now, Breuer said, and he suggests investing in some kind of tick repellant — permethrin-based products work well — wearing light clothing and tucking pant legs into socks or boots.
As deer ticks expand north and west, that’s something for people to consider if they’re out in the woods hunting morels or other natural goodies.
Breuer says he once had to have a deer tick cut out of his shoulder because it was so deeply imbedded, and he was treated for Lyme disease.
Now, he said, it’s standard procedure after a trip in the woods to shed clothing on the deck or in the kitchen to make sure they’re not carrying the ticks into the house.
“It’s definitely something you want to be aware of,” Breuer said. “(Deer ticks) are so tiny that it’s hard to see them, and I always suggest everybody wears a hat.”