By MIKE NORTON I made another discovery this weekend. With all the talk about the early onset of cherry blossom season - nearly a month early - another of Traverse City's favorite spring crops has been getting short shrift. Mushrooms. That's right, gourmands one and all: spring morels are already starting to be seen on some of our sunnier woodland hillsides. Don't expect me to tell you where - I have a hard enough time collecting enough for myself without giving away any secrets - but they're out there! For those of you who lack any sense of morels, this humble fungus is one of the great gastronomic treats of the North Woods. Its flavor is indescribable, a delicate spring earthiness with the firm texture of rare prime rib. Sautéed in butter with a pinch of garlic and perhaps a hint of lemon, it's an amazing taste experience. Each 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 the well-camouflaged spongy mushrooms. For several weeks, our country roads 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.
- Sweet Cherries in Bloom on the Old Mission Peninsula
A few, like veteran mushroom-hunter George Meredith, are glad just to be in the woods. Meredith has spent decades studying, photographing and even videotaping morels, but insists that they're mainly his excuse for getting out in the spring forest. "There's no other time like it," he told me several years ago. "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 birdfeeder, a bird so red that it makes a cardinal look dull. It's my mental spring cleaning." Which is not to say that any of us are too proud to gather a morel or two while we're enjoying all that aesthetic stimulation. We're familiar with them all - the early black and gray varieties, the plentiful whites and the late-season yellow or butterscotch morels (known locally as "Bigfoot morels" because of their prodigious size). And like all good hunters, we refuse to disclose our favorite 'shrooming grounds. Morels are plentiful in the first flush of spring, particularly after a good rain. And while they'll grow in almost any wooded region of the country, they seem to have an affinity for the steep sandy hillsides of northern Michigan's bay country, cradled by cool lakes, tilted toward the low spring sun and protected from drying. In the Traverse City area, the arrival of morel season is greeted with festivities at many of the area's local restaurants, which try to outdo each other creating new dishes featuring the tasty fungi. Although purists insist that their delicate flavor is best enjoyed with a minimum of extra seasonings and sauces, morels lend themselves to a wide array of meat and pasta dishes. They also make an outstanding counterpoint to the clean, crisp wines grown in the vineyards of the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas. Despite their association with the world of haute cuisine, morels also have a populist side. With a little luck and some basic knowledge, anyone can be a successful mushroom hunter - and the biggest morel fans in this region are in the distinctly downscale village of Mesick, about 20 miles south of Traverse City, home to the Mushroom Cap Motel and the Buck Snort Saloon. Every May for the past 52 years, Mesick residents have held a three-day event - the Mesick Mushroom Festival -- to celebrate the annual morel bloom and the hundreds of 'shroomers who flock to town in search of them. (It's always Mother's Day weekend -- that means May 11-13 this year - even though the morels are way ahead of schedule.) In some ways, it's a typical small-town festival - from the parade and flea market to the horse pull, fish dinner and horseshoe tournament. But the big competition each year is really the Biggest Mushroom Contest where rival hunters, in deadly earnest, bring their finds in to be weighed and measured at the town's two grocery stores, Ken's IGA and Yeoman's Market. Great fun, of course! But not to be compared with the quiet pleasure of a day spent in the woods, enjoying the spring sunshine and calling gently to the mushrooms in hopes of eliciting a reply. Get out there! (Just stay away from MY mushrooms....)
- The Elusive Quarry: a White Morel in His Native Habitat