Photography by Alyssa Stone
With spring anew, the seasonal change of winter’s snow and cold into April showers and May flowers is upon even us Chicagoans. This iconic sentiment of “spring anew” also conjures up feelings of revival, awakening from long spells of short days and long nights. One of the many ways people celebrate this time of year is to get outside, especially for us Chicagoans who know the value of a day in the sun. That’s why when the opportunity to road trip a short hour drive from the city presented itself, my companion and I jumped at the chance.
The 2nd Annual Chicago Chefs Morel and Ramp Romp, which took place on May 1st, was held at the Hickory Creek Winery in Buchanan, Michigan. The drive itself proved to be a veritable showcase of what spring has to offer. Once we left the city by way of the Skyway, we meandered through parts of uneventful Gary, IN, and into Michigan, the sites from the driver’s side were altogether beautiful; rolling hills, tree lined streets and dirt roads all leading up to a vineyard sounded like a great start to a Sunday afternoon. Factor in smells of fresh flowers and light rain along with prairie grass and a lit BBQ, the day started off well and continued to only get better.
What first attracted us to the event – besides the opportunity to get out of the city for a day – was the idea of finding morels in the wild. The nutty, delicious and head-inducingly-expensive mushroom seemed to be the star of the show. Visions of fields utterly packed with these culinary delights came, and truth be told, from someone who has never once foraged for anything, I may have set the expectations a bit high. We arrived to a packed show house full of foodies, chefs and gourmands alike, all there for the experience to put warm fingers through cold dirt, to sift through the natural brush and discover something special. We ventured out: me, my cheese monger companion, a chef and his wife, along with a few other food-forward individuals.
We were thrown into the wild right away, having to side-step the remaining bones of some creature’s late night dinner – a deer I was told. That led to us hopping through a thorn bush patch with each person in front of the other holding back branches filled with sharp, pointy ends that easily cut through cloth. However, after by-passing the supposed deer carcass and thorns, we entered into a low brush area filled with green, leafy onion-like plants otherwise known as ramps. As was told to me, ramps are basically a subtle cross between garlic clove and white onion. The chef in our group mentioned they go for $11 per pound back in Chicago and can be picked, sautéed with greens and even used in pesto.
The star of the show – the morel – was extremely difficult to track down. My previous vision of morels, handpicked by the dozen, were dashed by ramps, ramps and more ramps. Out of the entire group, only one person found any, and she could count them on one hand. So, our consolation was the ramp, which combined with the abundance and the fact that they were free, was more than adequate as second fiddle.
Once we returned to the house, the smells of lit barbecue only intensified. The chef, Drew Turnipseed, prepared two suckling pigs and two whole lambs. For the rest, he put together a spread featuring 2000 year old ancient Roman dishes gleaned from 4 months spent as part of the opening crew of Broken English in Brooklyn, NY, a very traditional Roman bistro. These dishes included sweet breads, venison heart, crisp asparagus with fowl, wild boar carpaccio and a platter full of picked morels. So, we ended up having plenty of morels after all.
The experience itself was wonderful. The chance to get back to nature, to literally get the hands dirty, had a subconscious attraction. For some reason unknown, I wanted to dig in the cold, wet soil and pull out these incredibly fresh, delightful ramps. Although we found no morels in the wild, the real pleasure came in being outside, enjoying the crisp May air and really just enjoying the harvest the Midwest spring gives us.