Foraged - a descriptor that pops up on the menus of restaurants with reclaimed wood walls and poured concrete floors. The word conjures up visions of lush green hikes, stumbling upon elusive ingredients. Or it maybe it’s just a way to justify the hiked up price of your small plate. Is foraged all that? Yeah. It really is.
As a vegetarian, I rarely have cause to think about “the hunt.” So when a little internet research for a weekend getaway lead me to Leelanau Adventures, offering Morel Hunting Courses, I booked. The prospect of possibly discovering patches of delicious fungi that we could cook up, sent my partner and I on a 6 hour drive to northern Michigan’s Leelanau Penninsula, to try our hands at foraging.
When I think about how much attention it takes to keep my basil going strong all summer or how often I’ve seen tomatoes blossom into inadequate fruit without just the right amount of sun, I am awed by edible foods thriving in the wild. Out on their own, with no farmers tending to them and no machines tilling soil, they can sprout up in feast-worthy proportions.
Louis CK comes to mind here...
“Just eat the shit on the floor. I left shit all over the floor…Corn and wheat and shit. Grind it up and make some bread!”
Louis’s bit is not too far from how I feel. We’ve created all this Frankenfood, pumped with mysterious hormones and chemicals. But there’s all this amazing, untapped stuff freely growing and available to us, year after year, without any direct planning or "enhancing" by human beings. Morels are so obstinate, in fact, that they are one edible that humans have been unable to cultivate. They grow where and when they want, and maybe that’s another reason I am drawn to them. #marchtothebeatofyourowndrum
Our guide was a local man, who had grown up learning about the woods from his family. Like most in the area, he had his favorite morel spots: shared with few, and closely guarded. We would all stand still when we heard voices in the area, crouching down at the sound of car wheels nearby. Having a guide is imperative when getting started in mushroom foraging as many edible mushrooms have poisonous impostors. REALLY - Get. A. Guide. Research. Certain mushrooms can decimate your organs over the course of 2-3 weeks before you even know you have eaten something poisonous.
The moment we stepped out of our car, Ric looked down and pointed at a cluster of 5 or 6 leafy plants, asking, “Hey, are those ramps?” Our guide nodded and we realized the ramps (he called them wild leeks) were a thick shag carpet surrounding us. They were everywhere. “And there’s fiddlehead ferns over there.” He pointed to the elegant coils, giraffing up through all those ramps. Food. All over the floor!
We spent a good two hours learning about how to recognize edibles and what to steer clear of (befittingly, many poisonous mushrooms have menacing, death metal names like Destroying Angel and Death Caps). Our eyes became hawkishly accustomed to favorable morel environments and we even noticed a tiny, two inch frog. We got friendlier with the area's trees. It was serene, yet thrilling, feeling the eagerness of a game of a hide and seek , while being totally at ease amongst the lightly rustling trees and echoey woodpecker drills.
A dry spring made those fickle morels sparse, but, just as we were about to head back, with pounds of ramps and a few sprigs of trout lily ,two golden morels appeared in our return path. That moment was pure exhilaration, even for a harvest of just two. I swear the light broke through the trees to expose them. And therein lies the pricelessness of foraging.
It's the journey, not the destination.
Here’s a few shots from our hikes. We wound up jonesing for more, so we took a second hike in the land surrounding our AirBnB. We got lucky, AGAIN, just as we decided to wrap up what looked like a fruitless-exept-for-several-more-pounds-of-ramps hunt.
We put ramps in everything for weeks - slightly milder than garlic, and all the more satisfying that we know their exact journey into our pans and salads. The few precious morels paired perfectly with them, atop spaghetti in butter and olive oil. As our guide Eric mentioned, "What grows together, goes together." With as difficult as the morels were to find, we wanted their flavors to be prevalent and shine when eaten.
Golden Morels and Trout Lily
Forest Light is Unmatchably Gorgeous
Spot the Morel! Ric Did!
Edible Trout Lily
Frog on a Log
Maybe not Edible, but Beautiful Waves of Mushrooms
What Grows Together, Goes Together. Ric cooking up a Morel Ramp Sauce for Pasta
Morel and Ramp Pasta
all photos: Jamie Ramsay