Come mid-May, my palate stings for the woodsy taste and inimitable bite of freshly picked Michigan morels. This wizened druid of a fungi has an elusive flavor, hinting of forest, earth and rain. It’s a flavor that will, sadly, vanish if carelessly handled.
Every May, hordes of Michiganders head for the forest, especially after a heavy rain, in quest of this holy grail of woodland treasures. For those not acquainted with morel foraging, morel haunts are often carefully guarded secrets shared only among the closest of friends.
But there are ways to find morels even if you have no fungi connections. The 50th annual National Morel Mushroom Festival begins today in Boyne City and will last through the weekend. Every minute will be packed with mouth-watering activities, some of which may include tracking down secret morel locations.
My husband, Richard, and I have a special location and particular hunting technique to ensure we return home with a bag of morels. This year the landscape, dotted with snow-white trillium and thick with decaying leaves, smartly camouflaged the succulents.
Our hunting technique? We lie prone on the ground, facing up into the hills. Our vision crawls through the bark and wildflowers until the mushroom’s tapered, ridged cone-head reveals itself, popping up like a sentinel through the forest floor.
The morel’s location? My sincere apologies but the consequences would be dour for me if I revealed the sacred hunting grounds.
After a day in the woods we didn’t have the energy to fuss over dinner and frankly, I don’t like to overwhelm the flavor of the morels with too many ingredients. We had a bag of locally produced Al Dente Wild Mushroom Pasta, chicken breasts, a red pepper and odds and ends. (Note, Al Dente also carries an organic line, “Farm and Field”, that is half wild mushroom and 1/2 egg pasta.) Wild leeks, or ramps, another spring forager’s delight, would be a splendid substitute for the shallots, if desired.
The flavor of the morel is subtle and it requires a nimble hand in the kitchen. To best enjoy morels, eat them soon after harvest. If you’ve no time to hunt, I’ve seen fresh morels recently at Hiller’s and Whole Food’s. Dried morels are an excellent substitute for fresh, and if purchased from a reputable source, they have a similar texture and the musky appeal of freshly harvested morels.