After winter’s thaw, Boyne City starts the high season early with an annual event that finds thousands of tourists, hundreds of foragers and countless edible mushrooms popping up all over the area. The occasion is the National Morel Mushroom Festival held May 15-18 to celebrate the famed hometown specialty. And the chance to get in on the first taste of spring draws a mass of hopeful fans into town looking to unearth some precious bounty.
The festival has drawn treasure hunters to the area for over 50 years, but unlike California’s short-lived gold rush of 1849, Boyne City’s gold nuggets keep popping up year after year in the form of a seasonal foodie find known as the Michigan morel mushroom.
The center of mushroom mania is Boyne City’s Veterans Memorial Park. Over four days, it’s the stage for fevered pitch contest excitement and delectable experiences including guided hunts, mushroom hunting seminars and the “Taste of Morels” competition, when festival-goers can sample new culinary creations by local chefs. The site also hosts a fungus-infused craft fair and carnival, book signings and mushroom expert sightings — plus the occasional overheard whisper about a favorite forest spot sure to bear a mother-lode of morels.
But the citywide celebration also stretches far beyond the waterfront park to other venues up and down the streets of town and out into the surrounding countryside where the premiere event — the 90-minute mushroom hunt — takes place at a secret location.
Our month-long prix fixe seasonal menu is a great creative adventure during morel season — these mushrooms are so deeply flavorful.
— Chef Kyle Marshall, Cafe Santé
Visitors who aren’t up for a strenuous hike in the woods or the event’s 5K charity run can try their luck by participating in the citywide Great Morel Giveaway contest as more than 20 local businesses, restaurants and shop owners rally to host a scavenger hunt of a more urban nature with morel prizes at every stop.
“From one end of town to the other, the festival is abuzz with morel fans of all ages,” says Jim Baumann, executive director of the Boyne Area Chamber of Commerce. “Everyone gets in on the fun — from seasoned hunters and novices to local businesses and restaurants.
“The festival gives visitors a chance to taste the Boyne area’s most famous spring treasure when our best chefs showcase their creations.”
There’s the swanky Morelfest “Wine & Dine” event, where area wines are paired with morel-infused dishes, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) — hosted Morel Breakfast on Saturday morning. But all across town, local restaurants — including Lake Street Market, first-place winner of the Taste of Morels 2013 competition, and Cafe Santé, a popular bistro-style restaurant overlooking the harbor — relish the opportunity to spotlight the area’s specialty.
“Our month-long prix fixe seasonal menu is a great creative adventure during morel season,” notes Chef Kyle Marshall of Cafe Santé. “These mushrooms are so deeply flavorful that they lend themselves to almost any kind of dish.
“But nothing,” he adds, “can really compare with the pure flavor of a Northern Michigan-style preparation: sautéed morels in lots of melted butter with a little garnish of fresh spring herbs and a sprinkling of salt.”
Boyne’s Other National Treasure
Morel mushrooms may be the real draw of the festival, but some would argue that life-long Boyne City resident, festival board member and five-time national festival winner, Anthony (Tony) Williams (pictured on page 81) is the other.
Williams is renowned for knowing how to wrangle morel mushrooms from the forested hills surrounding Boyne City. Once he retired from competition, he made it his mission to teach others the fun of foraging and the importance of woodland preservation.
The tented crowd hangs on his every word, gleaning secrets necessary to ferreting out morels amidst forest floors blanketed with trillium and field leeks. Step one?
“Wear comfortable shoes, don’t carry a lot, keep moving fast and look up, not down,” Williams advises. “And please take care of our woods while you are out there. Learn to respect that cathedral I call the forests surrounding Lake Charlevoix.”
He also reminds the audience that he doesn’t hunt for morels; he harvests them. There is a big distinction. And there isn’t a person in town that doesn’t want to follow him into those hills.
Learn more about the 54th National Morel Festival at morelfest.com.
Grilled Sable Fish with Roasted Asparagus & Morels, Whipped Potato and Morel Cream (Yield: 4 servings)
Cafe Santé, Boyne City
1 pound fresh morel mushrooms, cleaned and halved
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced shallots
½ cup white wine
2 cups heavy whipping cream
12 ounces asparagus, cleaned and trimmed
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 each 6-ounce fresh sablefish (black cod)
Place 1 tablespoon butter in a preheated sauté pan over high heat. Sauté morels to lightly caramelize. Remove mushrooms from pan, reserving pan juices for sauce. Reduce heat to medium, add remaining 1 tablespoon butter, garlic and shallots. Sauté briefly until shallots are translucent, season with salt and pepper and add wine, reducing until almost dry. Add cream to pan, reduce again by half. Return half of the mushrooms to pan, reserving remainder for asparagus. Simmer for 1 minute, juice from the mushrooms with thin the sauce slightly. Add a pinch of cayenne to sauce.
Place asparagus on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place in a preheated 450 degrees oven for 5 minutes. Add remaining mushrooms to pan, toss with asparagus. Bake for another 5 minutes or until the asparagus starts to brown.
Lightly season cod with olive oil, sea salt and fresh cracked pepper. On a preheated grill, cook over medium high heat until just done. Plate grilled cod on one scoop of whipped potato, garnish with roasted asparagus, top with morel cream.
Steak and Morel Tacos (Yields 12 tacos)
Red Mesa Grill, Boyne City
2 pounds hanger steak, marinated in your favorite marinade
1 pound morel mushrooms
¼ pound butter
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
Dash of salt and pepper
Local spring greens mix
½ pound queso blanco (mild cheese), crumbled
12 6-inch flour tortillas
Honey Ancho Chimichurri Sauce
½ cup diced onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons ancho chili powder
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup honey
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
½ cup fresh parsley, minced
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
Place onions, garlic, and ancho powder in oil, bring to a simmer and cook for 2 minutes over heat. Mix all other ingredients together and pulse with blender. Reserve.
Grill hanger steak to medium rare and set aside to rest. Sauté the morels in butter, fresh minced garlic, salt and pepper. Heat tortillas in pan until warm and soft. Thinly slice hanger steak and place in heated tortilla. Top with spring greens, sautéed morels, honey ancho chimichurri and queso blanco.
First-Place Winner “Taste of Morels 2013” – Morel Mushroom Soup (Yield: 8 servings)
Lake Street Market, Boyne City
1 cup dried wild mushrooms (preferably morels)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup onion, chopped
½ cup celery, chopped
½ cup leeks, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
¾ cups all-purpose flour
1½ quarts vegetable stock
2 cups half-and-half
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 pound fresh morel mushrooms, rough chopped
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
1½ ounces sherry (optional)
Place dried mushrooms in pot with enough water to cover generously. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 45 minutes. Drain mushrooms, reserving liquid. Chop mushrooms into small mince. Set aside. Melt butter in heavy stockpot and lightly sauté onions, celery and leeks until translucent and soft (12-15 minutes). Add chopped garlic, thyme, minced mushrooms and flour until thoroughly mixed. Cook over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Slowly whisk in reserved mushroom water and stock. Continue cooking over low heat until thickened (20 minutes). Stir in half-and-half. In separate saucepan, sauté morel mushrooms with ½ stick butter until softened and lightly browned. Add to soup and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Finish with a swirl of sherry if desired.
Freelance writer Caroline J. Beck lives in California’s wine country and Lexington, Mich.