Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fièvre des Champignons

Autumn in France is mushroom season, and everyone, including me, is excited. Whether you talk to a teacher, a butcher, or the guy who drives a scooter around town vacuuming up dog poop (yes he exists...) they will all have something to say about mushroom hunting. Where to find mushrooms and what types grow in your region is common knowledge here. Not only that, but a French person can tell you what type of mushroom grows under which tree and will then rattle off a dozen recipes for cooking the mushrooms. Don’t expect someone to give you the coordinates of their favorite spot though. The best locations are kept secret and passed down through the generations like a family heirloom.

Mushroom hunting is also a risky business, but fret not, you can take all the mushrooms you find to a local pharmacist who will tell you which are edible and which are deadly... Many of the pharmacies have posters in the windows right now with descriptions of the local fungi. Even the local shops are getting in on the fun displaying all the essentials: mushroom knives with little brooms on the handles, books, and compasses.

I’ve been waiting patiently (except for a little pouting last week) for Martine to take me on a hunt, and finally, the day arrived last Saturday. She and I drove into the country after lunch. I was dressed sensibly for the forest in my Mizuno trail runners, Patagonia hiking pants, and rustic sweater. Martine was also dressed sensibly for the forest in a beautiful brown wool (possibly cashmere) turtleneck, brown leggings, and brown riding boots.

We drove about 30 minutes until we saw a trail on the side of the road marked ‘public’ and pulled over. One has to be careful not to get caught collecting mushrooms on private land. This time of year there are “mushroom rangers” patrolling the woods, and if you’re caught in the wrong place you have to hand your mushrooms over to the ranger who then has a lovely dinner that night. Luckily all the woods are marked clearly.

Once in the woods, I found a lot of mushrooms. Unfortunately, most of them were poisonous. Martine could point out right away whether or not they were edible, and had an excellent eye for spotting the little guys. The mushrooms we were looking for were les cèpes, and she found the first one. She found three more before I found my first (and only) one, but it was gorgeous! We didn’t find any more cèpes after that, but we did find wild apples and collected a few. We drove around a bit more and found all sorts of goodies on the side of the road. We found a walnut tree (which may or may not have been private), blackberries, and wild pears!

We returned back to her apartment with our bounty. We had just enough cèpes to serve them with dinner. Martine cooked a turkey leg with potatoes, and she sautéed the mushrooms in butter and garlic. She even threw together a quick apple tart. Ayumi and Pierre joined us for dinner as well. Good company, good food, formidable!

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