In the forests of Northern Michigan, springtime promises the warmth of sunshine, a welcome symphony of birdsong, the brilliance and scent of woodland flowers -- and an eagerly-awaited gastronomic treat.
Yes, I’m talking about morel mushrooms.
These humble fungi are one of the great culinary delights of the North Woods, with a flavor that’s hard to describe: a delicate spring earthiness, with the firm texture of rare roast beef. Sautéed in butter with a pinch of garlic and perhaps a hint of lemon (or paired with another spring crop: wild leeks or ramps, whose thick oniony leaves sprout up conveniently nearby) they’re an amazing taste experience.
Every spring, hundreds of devoted mushroom hunters head to the wooded slopes around Traverse City to search for these "truffles of the North," combing the hillsides for these well-camouflaged spongy mushrooms. For weeks, our rural backroads are lined with cars, campers and pickups whose owners are deep in the woods, scanning the ground as they crunch determinedly through last year's leaves. By day's end some will emerge toting huge bags of mushrooms, while others (like me) are content to find a dozen.
Since this is such a food-obsessed town, morels have already made their appearance on the menus of local restaurants this spring. Though purists insist that they’re best enjoyed with a minimum of extra seasonings and sauces, they lend themselves to a wide array of meat and pasta dishes.
Still, I’ll confess that I’m a little ambivalent about the whole thing.
Long ago, when I was a newcomer to this area and its annual rituals, I learned about morels from one of this area’s legendary mushroom hunters. His name was George Meredith, and he spent decades studying, photographing and even videotaping morels. But one of the lessons he constantly stressed was that the best reason for hunting them is that it gives you an excuse to get out and wander around aimlessly in the spring forest.
"There's no other time like it," he told me. “Spring is such a time of renewal in the woods. The sun is shining down through the trees, there are wildflowers everywhere. The woodpeckers are tapping away above you, and once in a while you'll see a scarlet tanager -- a bird that most people would never have a prayer of seeing at their bird feeder, a bird so red that it makes a cardinal look dull. It's my mental spring cleaning."