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It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Nope, not Christmas. At the same time when lovely things like asparagus start poking up out of the ground, keen-eyed or lucky hunters can find one of spring’s greatest delights — morel mushrooms. Also known as dryland fish, morels are a prized delicacy, and a delicious part of southeastern Kentucky heritage. I grew up digging into plates of pan-fried dryland fish when my family landed a big “mess” of them some springs. Morels for sale at the Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine, KentuckyTheir earthy, lusty flavor is unlike any other mushroom. They’re also extremely hard to find – some hunters won’t unearth a single morel all season. Their rare nature and delicious flavor add up to a hefty price tag, some years bringing in up to $75 a pound. My brother and parents bagged a couple of pounds between them but refused to FedEx them to me from Somerset, so when I heard about the Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine, I knew we’d need to rise unreasonably early for a Saturday and head east. My husband and I fortified ourselves with iced coffee and set out this morning, undeterred when something broke underneath our car. We’ll check into it later. Route 89 twists into Irvine and drops drivers right downtown. We parked around the back of the festival and joined the crowds. I despaired of finding a single morel as we passed stalls hawking flea market fare — until I spotted a festival-goer toting a garbage bag stuffed with the mushrooms. I quickened my pace through the arts and crafts section of the thoroughfare until I found the morel market. Cigarette smoke fought the pungent fragrance of the morels for dominance in the already hot morning air. We met up with my parents (who’d already eaten all of their morels and were jonesing for more) and joined the line to inspect the boxes and bags of morels. Morel cooking demonstration at the Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine, Kentucky-4The first stall offered them for $40 a pound. We moved on down the line and met Shane Cox, a regular at the festival, drawing crowds with the half-pounder he had on display. This easy-going guy wasn’t about to tell me where he found his plunder, but happily sold me a pound of super fresh morels for $30. My important business out of the way we strolled the few streets of the festival, indulged in some fried food (though no morels, sadly), and checked out the mushroom-themed cake decorating contest. At noon we settled into the front row to watch the father-daughter cooking demonstration. My parents took off – my mom knows perfectly well how to cook morels. Though I disagreed with the battered, deep fried cooking method (and agreed with the guy behind me who commented that you may as well be eating French fries), I gladly took a sample when the seven-year-old girl passed them out. By now we feared that our bag of morels was wilting so we snuck another sample from the table, grabbed our souvenir T-shirts and headed back to Louisville to cook our booty (pan-fried, the proper method). Mountain Mushroom Festival Sun., April 26 festival opens at 10 a.m. http://www.estillcountyky.net/  More photos of the festival

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