Ask anyone in my family their favorite holiday, and they’ll most likely say “the morel hunt.”
Somewhere between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, depending on the coolness of nights and frequency of rain, we head to the woods in search of a tasty mushroom shaped like a honeycombed umbrella. Like many in Michigan’s north, we guard our hunting spots as our most prized possessions and swear that our last meal choice would be these fungi, dredged in flour and fried in butter.
But a close second to taste is the way the hunt itself takes you into spring woods just coming to life, under soft sunlight filtered through the trees, and of the way traditions become forged over the years. There’s the need for a morel “basket,” for example — something with holes small enough that no morels would fall through, large enough to scatter spores and ensure bounty for years to come. There’s the strategy — hunt along ridges, look out several feet instead of down and stick near the base of certain trees. And there are even rules that play out more like a game. Find one, you stop and shout, and everyone comes running. It’s a well-known truism of morel hunting that where one grows, so do many. And then there’s the feast.
Fortunately, both morel-themed hunts and meals can be found across the state come May, in locales as stunning as the resulting plates. Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay offers an annual Morel Harvest Dinner (six wine-paired guided courses and the hunt for $100) that combines it all and adds the bonus of paired bounty from a vineyard just starting to bud. One hallmark of this winery/inn/farm/restaurant complex is the direct link it ties between your food and wine and where it comes from, and that maybe best exemplified at this feast.
“You know that whole idea of farm to table …” says Stephanie Wittala, events manager and pastry chef. “…We’re a farm. We raise our own animals, chickens lay eggs for us on a daily basis, and we have hoop houses and gardens all over the property, and other food growing in the woods. And we’re all about the experience. The key component of our dinners is that people are learning something they wouldn’t be able to access on their own.”
The morel dinner is so popular that it launched a series of other monthly harvest dinners. But this is the only one in which guests gather ingredients. However, if you strike out, don’t worry, you’ll still get to eat! The hunt is more about a memorable walk in some pretty woods, the education and the bonding with fellow guests — that, and possible leftovers for taking home — than the evening meal.
Though chefs use general flavor guides to decide what they’re serving (and will likely serve a buttery Chardonnay with at least one course, Wittala says), the menu items are often finalized close to the night of the actual event. The spirit of the dinner dictates that courses are designed around what is growing, ripe or has been found in the woods. There’s a spirit of creativity, too, if past creations like caramelized morel mushroom ice cream are any indication.
With a few tips on ways to avoid what’s known as a false morel — those in which the cap is not connected to the stem and are potentially poisonous — even novice mushroom hunters can safely head out on their own to hunt on public lands. But first-timers often like to start at a guided hunt-and-taste option, like those offered at Michigan’s two major morel festivals.
The Fests and Feasts Mesick’s Mushroom Festival runs May 8-10, and a highlight is the $6 “Mushroom Pickers Kit,” a local treasure map that lets you hunt without the pressure of competition and many family-friendly games. The following weekend, morel lovers can head to Boyne City, where Boyne’s Morel Mushroom Festival features both a guided hunt with tips for beginners and more animated competition among experts. In a good year, winners net hundreds in an hour. The highlight, though, is the Taste of Morels; local chefs seek to outdo each other with gourmet takes on the morel, and visitors can buy tickets for as many tastes as they like.
Those who want to hunt outside of those festivals and join a small group with morel guide Chris Matherly may find themselves on the National Geographic Channel reality show “Filthy Riches.” The show will be filming the May 18-20 hunt led by the creator of the site morelmushroomhunting.com, one of two he’ll lead in northern Michigan this year. They’ll also enjoy a two-day guided hunt with lunch the first day and a morel feast the second. Hunt costs range from $185 to $250, depending on whether or not a license fee for private land use is needed.
Mather launched his initial website in 1999 to let morel lovers share tips. He led his first guided hunt in 2001 and is now up to 35, starting in Georgia in early spring and following the morel season north to the Midwest. The key to the find is looking under the right trees, he says, which is not as easy as it sounds. In Oregon, morels are found under conifers and firs, he says, but in Michigan, under ash trees, dying elms and in old apple orchards. While morels grow in every state (yes, even Florida has had recent reports of a find), more people in the Midwest travel to Michigan for morel hunting, he says, than to any other location.
“The state is very popular,” he explains. “There are beautiful woods there, and there are lots — and lots — of morels.”
THEY PICK, YOU EAT
Morels star on the spring special event menus of some of the top culinary destinations in Michigan’s north. Here are just a few worth the visit:
Nonna’s, the flagship restaurant of The Homestead, a Glen Arbor resort, offers a cooking demonstration May 2 and 9; Chef John Piombo introduces recipes featuring morels, ramps and asparagus. $50/person includes the demonstration in a classroom kitchen, tastes and recipes.
Watervale Resort, Arcadia, offers a special feast celebrating wild leeks, morels, asparagus and watercress on Mother’s Day and the first Tuesday in June. It also rents rooms by the night.
The Southerner, a restaurant officially opening in Saugatuck this June, opens May 5 and 6 for a special event pairing the skills of foragers Michelle and Andy Davis and two-time James Beard semi-finalist chef Matthew Millar. The first day of the event, guests can join the foraging for morels, ramps, violets, watercress and other wild foods; the seven-course feast with beer and spirit pairings is held May 6 ($200).
Boyne Mountain, Boyne Falls, holds its “Morel Fest Wine and Dine” May 15 at its Beach House Restaurant. Two seatings will offer a gourmet feast featuring the morel, live entertainment and wine pairings.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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