What I love about living in France is that it seems that just about everyone is interested in food. When you arrange a trip to go mushroom foraging, you won’t just get a group of esoteric foodies, but an enthusiastic oui from everyone you invite.
I was just settling down for a sieste when Thomas called (none of the characters in this story have particularly French names). It had been raining on and off the last few days, and now the weather was fine. There was a chance we might be able to pick our first mushrooms of the season.
I equipped myself with a small Tupperware box, and a knife. I had read that there are vipers in the French woods, and that for some reason, they prefer to bite women, so I wore a stout pair of boots.
When I got to Thomas’s house, I saw that he had stuffed his tiny car full of wicker baskets. I looked at my little box. Clearly it was going to be useless for the bumper harvest that Thomas expected, and I cast it aside.
The next friend to arrive was Marina, and she squeezed onto the backseat alongside the pile of baskets. All was well, and we drove to meet Kevin. Kevin however, is not a petite vegetarian dancer like Marina, but a big tattooed trucker. I had to give up my place in the front, and Marina and I settled down under all the baskets. Thomas had shown me the mushrooms we were searching for, the very expensive and tasty Ceps and Chanterelles. I was looking forward to the return journey, when the baskets would be full of the heady scent of foraged fungi.
Which brings me to my second tip for mushroom hunters. As well as the strong boots, take a friend with you who knows what he or she is doing. Have a target mushroom or two in mind, and learn about the conditions it prefers and the time of year it might be expected to show up.
You should also check if there are any poisonous mushrooms that it might be confused with, although I would suggest that as a beginner, if there is any chance you might confuse your target with something deadly, it is not worth the risk.
In France, there is also the amazing service offered by the pharmacies. If you are unsure about what you have picked, you can drop it by the local pharmacy, and they will identify it for you.
In France they also have huge tracts of forest designated for communal use. For me, as a Brit, this is amazing. The moment you stray six inches off the forest path where I come from, you find yourself confronted with a tweed-clad aristocrat pointing his rifle at you and claiming he thought you were a pheasant.
The boots came in handy, stomping through the undergrowth. In a country as devoted to its gastronomy as France, it is clear you won’t find any mushrooms worth eating by the side of the path, they will be long gone, and you have to journey deep into the forest to find anything. Look around ponds, ditches, and other damp areas, and on dead wood, although where you will find them depends on the variety you seek.
I found some alarming-looking orange mushrooms by the side of a creepy stagnant pond. My hair had got caught in the branches and I let out a shout.
“Found anything?” Called Thomas
“Lots!” I shouted back, “But all poisonous” In my mind, mushrooms are like those Amazonian tree frogs, their colors and markings serving to indicate that they are deadly. And I had got myself stuck in a patch of toadstools big enough to bring down a heard of elephants.
Kevin and Thomas knew a lot more than I did, however, and declared them not only edible, but delicious. They were Pied de Mouton, Hydnum repandum, also known as sweet tooth, wood hedgehog or hedgehog mushroom. They were orange, lumpy and irregular in shape, and the underside was covered in hairs. I picked them, but left the smallest ones to grow to full size for someone else. I also left the really big old ones, which wouldn’t taste good anyway.
When you pick mushrooms, never take all you find, or the mushrooms won’t return the next year. Thomas and Kevin decided they would be a good sauce for a joint of wild boar Kevin had in his freezer, so I took enough for the four of us, and left the rest.
Sadly, those were the only edible mushrooms we found all day, and my final tip for mushroom hunters is to view your expedition like a date with the forest. Don’t expect anything from it, and treat it with respect. And bring a beer as a potential consolation prize.
When we got home, my husband joked that he’s going to train me to find truffles next, but Kevin proved to be the most successful hunter of all of us, when he managed to find a bar in the middle of the forest. Yes, an actual bar, with cold beer and snacks.
The French really do know how to forage in the utmost comfort. The old hands who hang out at the bar, Gilbert, Caroline and Sava, told us of their triumphs and failures in the forest. Gilbert even showed off his cha-cha skills with Marina
Most of the baskets came home on our knees as empty as they had arrived, but we had collected enough for one meal, made some new friends, and had a pleasant walk in the forest. I would say that my first mushroom hunting trip was 100 percent successful, even if we didn’t find any of the prized Ceps or Chanterelles.
Later that night, we all met again to eat the mushrooms. Thomas had added them to the wild boar stew. They were excellent, absorbing the meaty juice of the stew, while retaining a firm texture, unlike many mushrooms, which go flabby after long cooking.
For me, that meal, made with local and wild food , enjoyed with friends, is exactly what real food is all about.
Hannah Wernet grew up self-sufficiently on a sheep farm in Wales. When she was 20, she moved to Austria where she works as a teacher and owns a small expat bar. She dreams of one day returning to a self-sufficient life in the French countryside. Read all of Hannah's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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