Boyne City’s National Morel Mushroom Festival

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If Boyne City morel-mushroom hunters of the past five decades can tell us anything, it’s that these meaty morsels are as prized as any nugget of gold.

Obscure, nearly colorless, and utterly delicious, they’re the crème de la crème of springtime ingredients and the celebrated star of Boyne City’s National Morel Mushroom Festival (May 12-15), a four-day celebration now in its 51st year.

Photographs by Cybelle Codish

Initially organized during a bar fight to legitimize bragging rights for the area’s top pickers (as local lore has it), the festival has since evolved from a contest-driven event to a family-friendly affair. Participants may now choose between a competitive or guided hunt, indulge in a gourmet dinner called the Taste of Morels, dance to local music, stroll through a market, or visit any Boyne City restaurant for a morel-infused feast. “That’s the beauty of this event,” says Anthony Williams, expert-in-residence and five-time national morel-hunt champion. (The biggest catch in Boyne history was Williams’ 796.) “You’re going to the woods, finding something exotic, and bringing it home.”

Morels, or morchellas for those who care to elevate the delicacy, come along once a year and, for aficionados, they’re as cherished as a truffle. In fact, a good yearly crop can yield thousands of the distinctively ruffled caps, with dried versions selling in Europe for about $200 a pound. To this day, no one has found the perfect way to mass-produce the species, which means that morels remain a natural treasure.

The fungi nestle inconspicuously on damp forest floors, among poplars and mature ash trees, along the 45th parallel between the months of April and June. And, as any amateur will confess, finding them is not nearly as easy as one might think. First off, seekers must contend with other hunters, dodging sprinters, and men dressed for battle, who all comb the woods with alert, hawk-like prowess. In addition, as newbies soon learn, the instinct to hunt in lines and open areas should be abandoned in favor of finding odd circles and dense patches. “Morel hunting is all about covering ground,” Williams says. “Keep your eyes up, pan left to right, and always stay moving.”
What if the horn sounds and you’re empty handed? There’s no shame in a light basket, says Williams. “This isn’t just a contest, it’s a celebration of northern Michigan. It’s an experience that gives us the opportunity to go into the woods, forage, and eat something wild.” And if you happen to stop by a local stand in town to purchase your fill, then that’s OK, too.

More information: morelfest.com.

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