A rite of spring, in which hunter, unarmed, stalks a prize often compared in quality and delicate elusiveness with imported caviar or truffles, is the pursuit of the morel mushroom.
From Indiana north to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, as the trillium buds and wild leeks, crushed by every footfall, release an unmistakeable odor, the quiet morel hunters take to the woods. Morels follow spring north, April through May, and so do avid morellers.
The small, easily identified spring mushroom flourishes in the hardwood forests of the Midwest. Urban gourmet cooks who pay almost as much for a can of morels as caviar would gasp at the sight of heaping platters of sauteed morels or shopping bags brimming with them.Some families begin picking in mid-April in southern Indiana and Ohio, working their way north, some selling morels as they go, along roadsides or to brokers who advertise in local papers for as much as $ 50 a bushel.
But most morel hunters pick for the combined pleasures of intimacy with the woods in early spring and the joy of eating freshly picked mushrooms.
Morelling techniques vary with the personality of the hunter. Some rush through the woods, beady-eyed, darting from morel to morel, avidly filling bags. Others use morelling as a chance to share in the resurgence of forest life.
In northern Michigan, when the first small black morels are up, success in morelling requires a sharp eye to distinguish them from the dark leaf mold on the forest floor. As the sun melts the last snows in the shaded hollows and the leaves are bleached and dried, white morels appear. Their small pitted heads, often found in groups of three and four, are barely discernible from the lacy edges of drying white leaves.
The challenge of spotting morels, the feeling of newly unfrozen earth giving under foot, the smells of rich humus, the sounds of a pileated woodpecker drumming on a hollow tree, shatter the lingering doldrums of winter.
Morels are the easiest and safest mushrooms to hunt, yet mycologists, mushroom students, warn they do have a potentially dangerous look-alike.
The three safe morels are Morchella angusticeps, the early small black morel; Morchella esculenta, the prized white morel; and Morchella crasipes, the giant white morel at the end of the short season.
A close look-alike, the Helvella esculenta, is picked and eaten by some with impunity. However, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and poison experts caution against eating Helvella, popularly called the "beefsteak" mushroom.
A true morel has two distinct characteristics. The cap and stem are one continuous piece. The cap does not hang out over the stem like an umbrella, but is attached to the stem all around its rim.
Secondly, a true morel's cap is "pitted with little hollows, as if holes had been punched part way into them," Department of Natural Resources literature explains.
Cooking morels is easy. Most people saute them lightly in butter. They may be added to cream sauces with good success; but their flavor is delicate and should not be wasted in spaghetti or on pizza.They complement fish, chicken, and pork beautifully, yet in Boyne City they are eaten with steak.
While Boyne City packs in the morel hunters with a carnival weekend of hunting and feasting, less competitive morellers seek out quiet hardwood groves of maples and beech, stands of aspen, birch, and balsam, even old apple orchards.
As they wander through the forests, soaking up spring's first warmth, many people would agree with John Voelker, retired Michigan Supreme Court justice and author of "Anatomy of a Murder" when he said:
"This is as much fun as fly-fishing for brook trout. . . ."
"Oh heavens, what have I said?"