Galena, Illinois, may not have the corner on small town charm, but it sure does have a sizable chunk of that real estate. It's one of my favorite places to visit, so much so that every time I come across a quaint, artsy village I compare it to Galena. "It's like Galena and Asheville had a love child!" I've exclaimed. And "This is what Galena would be like if it were on the side of a mountain!" And also, "If you plucked Galena out of the Midwest and planted it in Arizona it would be just like this!"
I might be slightly obsessed.
One of the reasons I love this town so much, besides its quintessential charm, its steepled skyline, its local boutiques, and its lazy river, is that many of my visits have been hosted by Eagle Ridge Resort for their annual Media Morel hunt.
These are not morel mushrooms. I'm good at finding these. Morels? Not so much.
Eagle Ridge Resort is an expansive getaway in the northwest corner of Illinois. Located within the 6800-acre Galena Territory, it offers everything from golf to balloon rides to a day at the spa. When you stay, you can choose one of the rooms at the Inn, or for a more staycation-style visit, one of their rental homes or villas.
Their location amid the rolling hills of the driftless region gives them access to prime morel hunting grounds. Since 2014, each May they've hosted a select group of media, inviting them to experience cuisine made with these elusive delicacies as well as to hunt for their own. I've been privileged to attend this unique event every year. Each time I think they've hit the pinnacle and their creativity will be tapped out for the next one, and each year I'm wrong. Really, really wrong.
The annual event always begins with a reception featuring an hors d'oeuvre made with morels expertly paired with wines by Food and Beverage Director Steve Curtis. This year's aperitif was morel fondue, a rich, sinful, ooey-gooey start to the evening. The reception is a chance for everyone in attendance to get to know one another, and for me it serves as a mini-reunion of industry folk that I never see back home. I was thrilled to visit with Johanna Cook of Momma Cuisine, Robert and Carrie Walker, and the Chicago Foodie Sisters, and we spent so much time catching up that I was only able to take a couple of bites of the fondue. (This was probably a good thing, because I would have dipped my face in the fondue pot. It also meant I had more room for the epic dinner that was to follow. Also a good thing? My elastic waistband.)
We found our placecards around the elaborately decorated table. These markers were an example of how things are done at Eagle Ridge: thoughtful, detailed, beautiful. Real violets and silk leaves were attached to a burlap background, tucked into a card holder made from a branch found in the woods. I was impressed enough with these that I carried them with me and propped them up at every meal, even the ones I prepared in our villa. (What - they were adorable!)
The table was a woodland floor, complete with violets, branches, grasses, dandelions, and, of course, morels. Colin Sanderson, Director of Sales and Marketing, joked that the table was decorated like that because he wouldn't give Banquet Manager Pamela Homan any money, but it was obvious (besides the laughter that comment elicited) that there was thought behind the display. Pam explained her selections: dandelions represent strength and happiness; violets love, modesty, and faithfulness; and the whole display was foreshadowing for our hunt the next morning. Even the dead elm tree in the center. Colin asked Pam "Why this dead thing?"
"Because you wouldn't give me any money!"
The camaraderie with this team is so fun it's like you're hanging out with a bunch of friends who live in the most awesome house you've ever been in with all the best toys and food and drink and everything. You can feel the respect they all have for each other. You can also taste it.
The dinner that followed was a playground of culinary creativity. The five course dinner began with smoked diver scallop and pistachio cappelletti stuffed with morels and four cheeses, followed by a sous vide spring chicken salad with grilled asparagus and fried morel. The intermezzo featured violets plucked from the surrounding hills served in a glass made of ice carved by Executive Chef Randy Hoppman, and the entree was morel-crusted rack of hare. Dessert was roasted strawberry and rhubarb layered in crisp phyllo dough alongside a chocolate chiffon topped with gold and nestled in guava lemon curd.
Lunch the next day, after our hunt, was another multi-course extravaganza that showcased the diversity of the mighty morel and the strength of Eagle Ridge's culinary team. It began with an appetizer of cedar plank lake trout with smoked morels, followed by a decadent morel cream soup, which led to a complicated and colorful salad drizzled with morel raspberry champagne vinaigrette. The entree was a fancy tenderloin stroganoff made with caramelized leeks, boursin cheese, and a morel mushroom risotto, and dessert was chocolate crepe mille tart with Frangelico cream paired with morel creme brulee. Yes, these chefs can even use morels in dessert.
In between all of this eating was the hunting. We prowled the wooded hills, searching near dead elms and may apples and under fallen leaves, brushing them aside with our walking sticks and trying carefully to avoid stepping on the honeycombed caps. Every now and then someone would shout gleefully "I found one!" and the rest of us would offer congratulations, while secretly cursing with envy. Me? I found two. Hey, it was better than last year (even if one did have a hole in the top).
The hunt itself was my annual reminder that, while I'm very good at eating morels, I'm very bad at finding morels. That's OK, though, since I know I can always visit Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa in the spring.
If you'd like to learn more about morel hunting in general, and about everything that Eagle Ridge offers, check out my four-part series on The Local Tourist.