For morel mushroom enthusiasts, hunting — and eating — season never feels long enough. If only the fungusy goodness could be prolonged somehow…
Chad Tillman and David Friesen have cracked the code, giving the fungi a longer life by putting them in beer and ice cream.
"The concept is, let's make a beer, and we can release it a little later," says Tillman, a chef at Freshwater who recently teamed with Crane Brewing in Raytown. "No one's eating morel mushrooms right around this time unless you're from the north."
The local season is just a few weeks split between March and April, and Tillman has participated every year for the past decade.
"A large part of (the thrill) is the finding. There's this excitement, there's this overwhelming, like, 'I accomplished something.' And then, you get to eat them," Tillman says.
The culinary risks he enjoys taking are an extension of that same thrill. Like hunting for the mushrooms, however, striking a drinkable balance in a beer can be elusive.
"The taste we were looking for was to just be able to recognize it," Tillman says. "We didn't want this mushroom beer where you just tasted nothing but mushrooms."
He thinks they nailed it.
Tillman and brewers at Crane started with a brown, English pub-style malty ale and a sweet grain with a biscuity aroma. And they used what are called "noble hops," which aren't overbearing like the hops in an IPA. Tillman says he could tell that combo would "play well with a mushroom."
But would someone crack open a morel beer after mowing the grass? No, Tillman says. That honor will most likely continue to go to the cold, crisp, lagers of the world.
He imagines enjoying a morel beer with a nice morel bisque.
And maybe a morel ice cream, similarly, wouldn’t cap a traditional summer meal any more than a sweaty lawn-keeper would reach for a morel beer.
"I like to think of ice cream as something you go out and do. You go out, you go to the shop, you see what's new," says Friesen, who owns Betty Rae's Ice Cream in Waldo and the River Market.
Completely independent of Crane's brewing quest, Friesen decided to mix up a morel creation of his own, also trying for just the right mix of flavors.
"We always try to do things that reflect the area we're in. Like we have Joe's Bar-B-Que ice cream. Everyone loves morels, and they're really delicious, and they're special to this area," Friesen says.
As with all of Betty Rae's concoctions, the ingredients are simple. For the morel ice cream, Friesen used only brown sugar, butter, a little bit of salt, cream and the $1,000 worth of mushrooms he purchased from a local hunter.
The flavor starts off rich in the bright, striking way of maple syrup, and deepens into the meaty fullness of umami.
"We always try to make our flavors so you have different things at different moments. The savory from the mushroom flavor piggybacks on the dairy fat and that carries it through all the way to the end," Friesen says.
Of course, he knows the mushrooms aren't for everyone. But so far, his creation hasn't only attracted customers familiar with the fungus.
"What's cool about this, too, is we put the ice cream out and so many people were saying, 'I've never gotten to try these mushrooms,' or, 'This is my first introduction to them' or 'I've never even heard of them before.'"
Hearing about Tillman's morel beer, it occurs to Friesen: Betty Rae's serves floats made with beer. Since he's got ice cream made with morels, what if....
Chad Tillman and David Friesen spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the conversation here.