The gifts of Northern Michigan’s woods find a place at our table as friends combine their talents for a foraged meal and nature-inspired decor.
Featured in the May 2020 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe.
What happens when good friends walk a sylvan setting in the spring, learn to forage, then return to a secret garden and a table laden with freshly gathered food and flowers? You get “A Day of Foraging with Friends,” an event conceptualized and designed by Melissa Conradie, owner of Conradie Event Design, and Amy Hendrickson, owner of Amy Kate Designs. Use their tips to create your own foraged feast.
Cottage Garden in Lake Ann was Melissa’s first and only choice for the event site. “My family has been friends with Dorina [Rudd, owner of Cottage Garden] and her family ever since I can remember,” she says. “When I was three, I thought of the property as a secret, enchanted garden, and all these years later, it still holds that same magic for me.”
The afternoon began with a foraging session led by Paul Salvatore, owner of Wild Mitten Mycology. Paul showed guests how to find morels and other edible plants native to the area, how to distinguish safe plants from poisonous ones and how to keep warm in the woods.
“It was unseasonably cool that day, even with the sunlight streaming through a canopy of fresh foliage,” says Kelly Newell with Sarradella Vintage. “As we walked, our boots sank into a carpet of decomposing leaves left from the previous fall. Foraging baskets in hand, we left the beaten path on our search. Scanning the horizon for the right tree and just the right spot, we climbed over logs and through dead branches searching for what we knew and learning about what we did not.”
Henry Bisson, owner of Smoke and Porter Public House, developed a dinner menu that included smoked trout toast and rabbit rillette, a bird’s nest Lyonnaise salad, herb ricotta gnocchi, smoked New York stripling topped with freshly picked morels and spruce tip pots de creme for dessert.
Several of the courses featured ingredients forged that day: morels, stinging nettles, cattail shoots, ramps (also known as leeks) and more.
The dining table, provided by Kelly, was dressed with cloche domes, fallen birch limbs, a variety of foraged mosses, a hand-woven bird’s nest, quail eggs and terrariums filled with lichen crust and British soldiers lichen. Each table setting was adorned with vintage dishes and plant-dyed napkins thoughtfully crafted by local forager Kristin Cassle. Kristin also concocted a violet simple syrup used in one of the cocktails prepared by the boutique bartending company Tonic & Lime.
Amy Hendrickson and Abbey Cooper, also of Amy Kate Designs, showcased their floral designs with flowers and ferns placed in aged medicine and apothecary bottles. Wildflowers and plants picked in local woods—violets, Solomon’s seal, wild oats, bellwort and common mullein. Amy and Abbey supplemented this natural bounty with garden flowers like forget-me-nots, muscari and hellebores, along with fern and herb topiaries.
The natural light was supplemented by hand-dipped candles in heavy iron holders, oversized lanterns on wall hooks along the house and iron chandeliers hung from trees.
“Melissa and I are native to the era, and we appreciate and respect every beach, trail and backwoods that we so often visit,” Amy says. “It’s amazing to have all this beauty in our own backyards.”
Bring Your Event to a Cloche
Cloche domes were originally used to protect plants from cold temperatures, and eventually morphed into a home decor item (view the photo below). “You can put all kinds of interesting things in a cloche dome,” says Amy Hendrickson, owner of Amy Kate Designs. “You can start a seed or build a little terrarium inside. You can set one on a table or on the ground. They have a simple design that’s very flexible.”
To fill out her design, Amy picked the mosses by hand, but notes they can also be purchased. “I also gathered different plant materials from the wild,” she adds, “like twigs, sticks and clumps of old wood from fallen trees. I made sure to keep the organic materials in the dome moist.”
For a burst of color, Amy chose greenhouse pansies, but of course, you can use wildflowers instead; just be sure you’re not taking them from private property or picking any protected species. “There are many beautiful wildflowers in Northern Michigan, but a lot of them are endangered and are protected by state law,” Amy explains. “Some of the most tempting are the Jack-in-the-pulpit, all native trilliums and all native orchids. You can look at them, but don’t disturb them in any way.”
Books, Trees and Toxic Wannabes: First Steps in your Search for the Wild Morel
Paul Salvatore, a seasoned forager and owner of Wild Mitten Mycology, shares some pointers to get aspiring morel hunters started:
- Do your research. Before heading out into the woods, take time to learn more about morels. Buy books, peruse websites. Salvatore recommends the National Audubon Society Field Guide of North American Mushrooms as a good primer on the subject. “The taxonomy in the current edition is a little outdated,” he says, “but it has a lot of great information and beautiful color plates, and it’ll fit nicely in your pocket.” He also suggests reaching out to mushroom mavens: “Some can be secretive and proprietary, but most of us love to share our knowledge.”
- Know your trees. Morels, like many varieties of mushrooms, have a mycorrhizal relationship with certain trees: The root system of the trees shares water and nutrients with the fungi. “Most morels are found around poplars, such as the quaking aspen, and very old apple trees,” Paul says. “When you hunt morels, you should hunt those trees first.”
- Learn to spot imposters. Inexperienced foragers are fooled by false morels, a poisonous group of species that can be hard to distinguish from their safe and delicious cousin. “Always be 100 percent sure of a mushroom’s identity,” Paul stresses. “One way to tell them apart is true morels in this region are completely hollow when cut in half lengthwise, whereas the false ones have chambers.”
Recipe: Gnocchi with Morels, Cattail Shoots, Asparagus, Smoked Tomatoes and Cream
- 2 pints smoked grape tomatoes
- 1 cup bacon, diced
- 1 pound morels, cut in half and washed
- 8 ounces cattails, cut into 1-inch-long pieces
- 8 ounces asparagus, cut into 1-inch-long pieces
- 2 quarts gnocchi (make your own or buy)
- 8 ounces cream
- 2 tablespoons fresh herb mix (tarragon, parsley, chives)
Toss the grape tomatoes in olive oil then smoke the grape tomatoes for about one hour at 250 degrees in your smoker. If you do not have a smoker, feel free to roast under the same conditions. They will lack the smoky flavor but will still be delicious.
Render the bacon in a dab of butter at medium heat. Once the fat has rendered out of the bacon, but before they become crispy, add the morels, cattails and asparagus. Sweat the vegetables for about three minutes, then add your cooked gnocchi and cream. Cook until the cream has reduced to sauce consistency.
Mix in the smoked grape tomatoes and fresh herbs, toss around and plate as you wish. Grate fresh parmesan on top to finish.