Traverse City Record-Eagle

Reflections

May 3, 2010

Wildly popular morel has become a year-round staple

Justin Rashid discovered morels before they went Hollywood. Rashid was in his 20s, a bit ahead of his time, running a little store in Petoskey in 1979 that he called "Whole Foods" (not THAT Whole Foods) and carrying fresh wild local produce. A friend of his had gone to work as a waitress at a restaurant in New York City, where the chef was using fresh morels.

She connected the two. Rashid, who had been picking morels since he was a little boy, began shipping him fresh northern Michigan morels daily via air from Pellston.

"I was way ahead of the local foods movement," Rashid said.

That chef, the renowned Larry Forgione, eventually came to visit and was enthralled with the region's orchards and wild bounty. At the time, he was buying jam from France, and asked Rashid if he could make it instead. Rashid did, using northern Michigan fruit, and a partnership was born. Their company, American Spoon Foods, went on to sell dried morels, along with jams, jellies, salsas, dressings, honey, syrup and other locally made products.

In the nearly three decades since, morels have earned a place at the gourmet table and a star on the culinary walk of fame. Already the theme of two wildly popular festivals in northern Lower Michigan — the Mesick Mushroom Festival and National Morel Mushroom Festival in Boyne City — they were embraced by the Rowe Inn and (now closed) Tapawingo in Ellsworth early on. Today, they show up on menus year-round and flavor everything from sauces to soups.

Not that you'd be able to get Chef Hermann Suhs' morel soup recipe.

Oh, he sells the soup — both from the menu in his Chef Hermann's European Café in Cadillac and in a concentrate for patrons to mix up at home. But the recipe? Not for sale. Or for free. He worked too hard to create it.

"It took me 11 tries," he said.

Suhs is quite proud of his recipe, though. Some morel soups are too pungent, he said. They can actually contain too many mushrooms. His is mild.

He also feels it's important to include a mix of other mushrooms, which his does — not that he'll say which ones.

Like Rashid, Suhs discovered morels well before it became trendy to do anything more than fry them up in butter in a skillet as mushroom hunters have been doing for decades.

"We cooked with them in Europe," said Suhs, who started offering his morel soup 25 years ago. "That's where it comes from."

Gerald Gramzay, corporate chef for Stafford's Hospitality, said he's guaranteed a steady supply of fresh morels by buying from a source that produces them in a controlled environment. The company's Weathervane in Charlevoix, The Pier in Harbor Springs and Perry Hotel and Bay View Inn in Petoskey go through "pounds and pounds and pounds" of morels, he said.

There's Morel Bisque, offered seasonally and made with sherry and port. They do a morel cream sauce for chicken or walleye. Sautéed morels go in salsas. Mixed with artichokes and tomatoes, they make a sweet garlic relish.

Gramzay said his restaurants have gotten away from buying fresh morels "through the back door" from mushroom hunters with bounty to sell.

"There's a gentleman, a scientist, who has figured out how to raise them, like farm-raising fish, he farm raises mushrooms in a very controlled environment with mushroom spores and certain types of mulch," Gramzay said. "They're not as big and meaty as the fresh ones, but they're available year-round and at a fraction of the cost of the dried ones."

Terry Left, owner of Terry's Place in Charlevoix, serves morels on whitefish and, in the summer, puts them on the menu with veal.

And he suggests an alternative to dried morels. He buys as many as he can in-season, cooks and then and stores them in the freezer.

"I sauté and freeze them in packages," he said. "Then I have them in the size container I use."

While Justin Rashid still loves morels, his company no longer dries and sells them.

"It wasn't that there was a decline in demand, but a decline in supply," said Rashid. Loss of habitat — Dutch elm disease and loss of stands of popple and aspen — has had a huge effect, he said.

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