This spring, you’ll see cars parked along rural stretches of Northern Michigan’s roadways, their occupants treading through the woods, gazing intently downward. These people aren’t walking aimlessly. They’re looking for food.
Not the packaged and easily available foods we’re used to buying at supermarkets, but food that’s the very definition of local. Our woods contain a botanical and mycological smorgasbord of wild violets, onions, mushrooms, berries and weeds like dandelions that are healthy, delicious and can be harvested throughout the year. For many of us, both here in Michigan and around the world, the act of foraging connects us with our food, the environment and, most of all, each other.
In many cultures, it’s not just families who gather over wild produce. When I lived and worked as an English teacher in the small village of Ei, Japan, my local friends and I would participate in annual spring foraging expeditions in the surrounding region. Our favorite place was a village on Japan’s southwest coast known as Bonotsu, about 40 minutes from Ei and an hour and a half from the city of Kagoshima and the active volcano Sakurajima. When the relentless monsoon season begins in late spring, the region’s humid, subtropical climate and volcanic soil gets drenched in warm rainwater, producing a bouquet of wild plants, mushrooms and berries. Plants like tsuwabuki and aso no udo sprout throughout the thickly forested mountains and valleys. Bamboo groves produce meaty shoots ready to be harvested by the dozens, and fallen logs transform into colonies of edible mushrooms.
At these early morning harvests, or “foraging festivals,” as many people liked to call them, groups of people of all ages would set off up steep mountainsides carrying thick bags on their backs. The older generations took great care explaining to the children and me, the overly confident foreigner, how to properly identify and prepare these tasty treats.
Related Read: Morel Mushrooms: How to Find, Store and Cook Morels.
After we were done collecting, we would return to town and prepare the feast. Every morsel was used as the star ingredient in dishes ranging from savory soups to tempura and rice dishes full of mountain greens. Whatever was left was taken to industrial kitchens to be made into pickles bearing Bonotsu’s emblem and sold throughout the region. What inspired me most was not just the diversity of ingredients the forest could produce or the flavors we could make, but also how this festival brought the community together.
Generally, for us in the United States, foraging is done in small groups of friends and families, or by individuals looking for the soul-quenching solace that only nature can provide. When I was a child, I would join my friends every year on a foraging journey through the forests in Grand Traverse County. Equipped with hiking boots, bags, digging tools and plenty of snacks to hold us over, we would spend hours scouring the forest floor. I’ll never forget the first time I stumbled onto a grove of wild blueberries. I discovered the spot by accident after wandering into a sandy meadow off the trail. I was trying to find sweet ferns and before I knew it, voila! I was surrounded by bushes full of ripe treasure. I still travel to this fruitful place every summer when I’m home, and I’m always delighted with the berries I find.
Even though I left Michigan after high school, I always look forward to coming back in the spring and summer months and hitting the woods with my friends. Finding fiddlehead ferns, wild leeks and the occasional morel fills us with excitement similar to a hunt. That excitement overflows when we unload our goods in the kitchen and prepare a feast. Much like my experiences in Japan, the meals run late into the night and are remembered throughout the year.
Northern Michigan’s foraging season starts in early spring. Wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), also known as ramps, are some of the first edible plant species to make their appearance. These pungent greens resemble a richly flavored cross between garlic and shallots and are found in dense clusters within our hardwood forests. (Note: Always harvest leeks and other wild plants on private property. Also, know that a toxic look-alike species known as Death Camas grow in similar clusters but away from woodlands. They lack the telltale onion aroma of leeks.)
Cooking wild leeks is especially fun. Sautéing them in butter with a pinch of salt is simple yet satisfying. Stewing them for hours with bones and other vegetables creates a broth that will impress even the pickiest ramen snob. By far my favorite way to enjoy them is to create a Michigan version of a northern Spanish tradition. Every year in Spain’s Catalonian region, communities gather to indulge in rich green onions known as calçots. These pungent tidbits are covered in olive oil, cooked over smoking wood coals and washed down with copious amounts of red wine. This year my friends and I recreated a calçotada with Michigan’s wild ramps and local cab franc.
During ramp season, our hardwoods start providing delicious spring elixirs. Beginning with maples in March and yellow birch in April, nutrient-rich sap begins to flow toward tree buds and new-growth wood. This year I found several healthy yellow birch trees on a friend’s property. I carefully carved my homemade tap using a yellow birch branch, inserted it into a small hole, and let the liquid drip into a canteen that I tied to the tree. After an hour of hiking, I came back to find my canteen full of the refreshing liquid. Birch sap is packed with nutrients and a small amount of sugar. For those familiar with making maple syrup, the same process can be used to condense birch sap into a thick, rich syrup.
By far the most famous, elusive and prized treat from our woods are morel mushrooms. Every year, hundreds of mushroom hunters descend into forests and orchards to find them (as well as to events like the annual Mesick Mushroom Festival and the National Morel Mushroom Festival in Boyne City). Like morels, many species of wild mushrooms are harvested and celebrated throughout the world. Arguably the most famous and crowd-pleasing fungus festivals occur in Northern Italy. These events are centered on the enigmatic white truffles that appear in the pastoral Italian countryside every fall. Thousands of people flock to villages in the region to partake in the foraging, and ultimate consumption of the fungi. Many regional specialties are made with them, including my favorite, truffle risotto. Morels, although lighter in flavor, can also be made into a fantastic risotto that perfectly captures the flavors of springtime in Northern Michigan.
Related Read: How To Harvest, Clean and Store Wild Leeks.
As the warmth of summer approaches, many more delicious plants make their appearance Up North. Cattails, with corn dog–shaped flowers, grow ubiquitously throughout our swamps and shorelines. While every part of the plant is edible, the young shoots provide the easiest and most delicious snack. Similar to the young bamboo shoots I harvested in Japan, their crisp texture and soft taste work perfectly in tempura.
Like delectable desserts after a hearty meal, berries appear in our woods in early summer, and what could be more special than our wild blueberries? Their sweet and pungent flavor is something I crave every time I leave Northern Michigan. Many people use them in jams, sauces or even alcoholic infusions. Few places celebrate wild blueberries better than the U.P.—at Paradise’s annual Wild Blueberry Festival, blueberries hold center stage. The small berries became a staple of the local economy during the Great Depression, and today, with the tourism the festival attracts, they’re just as important.
Our region is truly special and, for better or worse, an increasingly desirable place to live. As traffic increases and our area’s cities and towns expand, our communities need these forays into the forest. There is nothing more healing to the individual or the group than food and nature. In the end, what represents local pride more than foraging?
3 Delicious Northern Michigan Foraging Recipes
3 Delicious Northern Michigan Foraging Recipes
Morel and Ramp Risotto
- 2 cups water
- 4 cups chicken or mushroom stock
- 6 minced ramp stalks
- 2 Tablespoons butter
- 1⁄2 pound fresh morels or 1-2 ounces dried morels
- 2 cups risotto or Spanish short-grain rice Splash of white wine
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1⁄2 cup grated parmesan
- Fresh basil or oregano (optional)
Morel & Ramp Risotto Directions:
Gently simmer the water and stock in a large pot. Dice the white ramp stalks and greens and separate. Sauté the ramp stalks in butter until translucent. Add the morels and rice and cook for 5 minutes. After the moisture from the fresh morels has evaporated, add the heated stock and water a half-cup at a time, carefully letting the liquid absorb into the rice. Stir often to avoid burning on the bottom. When the rice is fully cooked, add a splash of white wine and another small splash of stock. Add salt and pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and add the grated cheese and garnish with fresh herbs.
*If using dried morels, soak them in water for an hour first before adding them in place of the fresh morels.
- 2 cups whole ramps, leaves left on 4 Tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Local cabernet franc or pinot noir
Wild Leek & Ramp Cooking Directions
In a grill, heat up and evenly distribute coals and add your favorite smoking wood like cherry. Wash your harvested ramps and leave them intact. Coat the ramps in olive oil and add a little salt and pepper to taste. After the coals are hot and the wood starts smoking, add the ramps to the grill. Grill until the ramps are soft and slightly charred on the outside. Serve with local red wine.
Dandelion Flower and Cattail Shoot Tempura
- 20 dandelion flowers, destemmed 4 cattail stems
- Cold water and a few ice cubes
- 1 cup flour
- 1 egg
- 1 cup vegetable oil (I prefer grapeseed oil)
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- Pinch of salt
Gather 20 healthy dandelion flowers and remove the stems. In a clean area away from pollution, cut 4 cattails cleanly at the base of the stalk. Remove the top 2/3 of the plant and keep the bottom stem. Remove several layers of the husk and keep the soft inside shoot of each plant. Cut cattail shoots into 4-inch-long halves (baton cuts work the best).
Add ice to cold water and let chill in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. In a small bowl, sift the flour to remove any clusters. In a larger bowl, beat the egg softly with a fork or chopsticks until the whites and yolks are thoroughly mixed. Remove the ice water from the refrigerator and remove the ice cubes (do not add ice to the batter). Add water to the beaten egg. Slowly add the flour to the water and beaten egg. Make sure to gently mix the flour into the mixture—you want to leave some lumps of batter.
Heat vegetable oil in a deep-frying pan to around 350° F. Dip cattail slices and dandelion flowers into a thin layer of cornstarch or sifted flour to help the batter stick. Gently and quickly dip vegetables into the batter. Add battered vegetables to the hot oil and fry until lightly crispy. Enjoy with your favorite dipping sauce. (I recommend tenstuyu, a sauce you can buy at an Asian grocery store or find simple recipes for online.)
Matt Dursum is a writer from Traverse City who currently lives in South America. Matt specializes in food, wine, travel and surfing. For more of his writing, visit wayfarersoliloquy.com.
Beth Price is an editorial and commercial photographer based in Northern Michigan. It’s here where she finds much inspiration in the color palette and light that falls throughout the changing seasons. She’s passionate about capturing authentic human experiences that help achieve a greater appreciation for the natural world we live in.