The BioRegional Kitchen:
We're Talking Morels!
writing and drawing by Steven Schwarz
I stand in a solid beam of mid-morning sunshine next to one of the largest white pines in the Grand traverse area. The ground is damp from an early morning spinkle and I breathe in the smell of the spring woods. All around me are close relatives and distant cousins of this magnificient tree. Another ray of sunshine has zeroed in on the charred remain of what may have been the grandpappy of this younger generation of pines. Looking closer, I see more of the burned out stumps, one with an eighty or ninety year old descendant of the same species, Pinus strobus, growing from it.
Another stump, bathed in thin sunlight, sits on a knoll to the North, looking as if it could easily be the throne for the god of lightning that made it as it is. Hunters and foragers rely upon such signs to guide them and this is a special landmark of mine which I use to find a certain spot. Though I'm early in the season, what I see poking through a carpet of pine needles, twigs and decaying Bigtooth Aspen leaves tells me that luck may be with me. I bend to pick one of of the fiddle heads, baby fern shoots, and nibble on it, all the while watching a small, reddish wood wren watch me. This land we call Michigan is so alive.
The fiddle head tastes of spring air, like smelt, trout, meltwater and of course, morels. I set about picking the shoots on a meandering course to a lower stand of aspen--my secret spot. The fern sprigs will make a nice addition to the lunch I am counting on finding in this secret aspen hollow. I pause, and sure enough my eye finds the silhouette of the game which I leisurely stalk. Morchella elata, the elusive, delectible, true black morel that has, at least as far as I'm concerned, no equal in the fungus world. By far the tastiest little morsel of edible mushroom you can lay your hands on, it commands a huge following of gatherers and an even larger enterprise in the gourmet food market. For me though, it is just another of the free and simple pleasure that I have come to rely upon.
In the spring my internal clock is calibrated upon temperature. Just fishermen rely upon temperature to make the trout available, so too morel hunters must watch the thermometer closely. To give an idea of why I was finding morels (aside from the obvious one that you can find them in about any Michigan woods and without giving away all the secrets), let me say that the temperature was about 10 degrees Celcius. "Ah-ha!" Two more...and another. A good thing as I'm starting to have visions of food and drink. Hunger can be a good thing. It drives you. Invigorates you. Ten more and I'm on my way back south to my tiny little cabin and my traditional first meal of morels.
As I approach, I hear a car door closing up on the road. Some days I need to embrace the woods alone and today is one of those days. I wait for fifteen minutes before stepping back onto the trail. They have gone the other way, up the hill trail and my presence passes unnoticed. I'm glad that people still have a fear of getting lost in the woods and so stick to established trails. There might soon come a day, I think to myself, when there is a GPS in every fools hand. I dread that day, but I think that already it might no longer be possible to get lost in a wood such as this. Maybe, but today I will pretend that I didn't hear that car door, that I'm out here every bit as alone as any voyaguer or courier du bois (literally "runner of the wood"), both happy and hungry. I increase my pace and soon come to the cabin.
Now where's that frying pan? In addition to a quarter pound of butter and a little salt, I have a couple of leeks that I dug up higher on the hill behind the cabin to add to the mushrooms and fiddleheads. I lay these in the cast iron pan and build a small, hardwood fire not much wider than the frying pan's base. I let the wood burn down a bit, but I still want some hot flames to heat the skillet quickly. I set the pan directly onto the small fire and in no time smell the distinctive aroma of leeks and morels sauteing in butter. After salting the dish, I take a fork out of my pocket and snatch a sample morsel--half a leek, a fiddlehead and a giant morel all stacked together and sizzling on the fork. "Oh man!", how good that first morel of the season is.
I pull the pan from the fire, set it on my outdoor table, a large cross section of maple that won't burn, pour a cup of local red and wait for the dish to cool. Only about a minute though, I like my morels hot. I take a slice from a half a loaf of heavy wheat bread, have a swig of wine and dig in. There is no meal in this world like fresh morels eaten outside. Smelling woodsmoke, balanced between a cool Lake Michigan breeze at your back and the warm spring sun in your face with nothing to do but eat, watch the birds and think about where to find some more morels.
Nothing, of course, except to drift off for an impromptu nap.
I awake to a smoldering fire and the low afternoon sun. I stretch, throw some raisins in my pocket, fill a water bottle, tighten my boots, grab walking stick and mushroom bag and head across the bridge and out into the woods, filled with visions of another meal of morels. This is the way life should be.
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