Autumn is Mushroom TimeOne of our favorite French words is champignons (we like pamplemousse also); and autumn is one of our favorite times of the year. We envy the lucky ones who enjoy those long walks chatting while hunting for the perfect shady spot deep in the forrest. This would be traditionally followed by an evening with friends, sitting by the fireplace eating the precious produce while learning all about the tales, secrets and tips, sometimes with marrons. It's important to know about cèpes and wines du terroir as Beth finds out in this months article from her estate somewhere in southwest France.
"Love mushrooms? The folks in our southwest corner of France do, and October is high season.
Our forest has a dubious reputation for producing the best fungi in the area. I say dubious because a sizeable chunk of our land is enclosed, so at this time of year, we have visitors who turn up any time from 6.45 am asking permission to enter. It drives our dogs and my husband, Jack, mad.
At the moment, the Boletus eduli, known here as a cep (bolet or porcini), is firing everyone’s fancy. The rich meaty-flavoured mushroom is large, round and starts a pale yellowish-brown colour, turning darker as it matures. They can become whoppers, growing to a width of 30cm (12 inches).
The other favourite flourishing in our forest is the Cantharellus cibarius – girolle. Also known as chanterelles, the trumpet-shaped golden beauties started appearing in July and are still common.
As we all know, picking the wrong type of mushroom can be fatal, but France has that covered. Many pharmacies have specialist fungi id experts who cater for less knowledgeable enthusiasts. It’s why so you’ll sometimes see customers with muddy boots and a bagful of mushrooms waiting in line. It’s an excellent service.
In an attempt to improve our champignons know-how, we joined some French friends on a foraging hunt. Yves and Georges, dead keen, immediately dashed off, leaving Nicolé to look after us novices. While we strolled along, nattering and enjoying the walk, Yves and Georges were meticulous. They picked through dead leaves, delicately removing and stowing their gems. It was during this forensic examination that Gilbert, Yves’ brother-in-law, appeared. Noting the moon’s favourable position (he’s a lunar gardener), he was already there and poking around with focused attention.
The following two hours were an education. Each picker had a bespoke mushroom-collecting wicker basket, a special mushroom-cutting knife and a shepherd’s crook. Each foraged independently on different patches. No one approached the other’s territory; it’s an unspoken rule among mushroom pickers.
As beginners, it was decided that Jack and I needed to have our finds checked to make sure they were edible. Yves was appointed as the official inspector. He scrutinised each offering, segregating them into three categories: Toxic – discard immediately and do not suck your fingers. Edible but boring; and very interesting.
By the end of our stint, every pannier was filled with various fungi, the prized cep being the most popular. Flushed with success, we decided to celebrate our first champignon-picking foray with drinks back at the house. This was when we met Nicolé’s sister.
Gilbert had tramped across the fields from his farm to the mushroom zone. He was too tired to walk back and called his wife, Emily, to come and pick him up. She joined us, and we settled comfortably around the kitchen table where the subsequent mushroom-related tradition occurred.
Each of the men proudly showed off their goodies. We, oh, la la’d at the spoils, which included cèpes, girolles and trompettes de la morts (trumpet of the dead) – the latter of which were inky black and looked extremely deadly. Again, I was mistaken. The black beauties were delicacies along with their earthy compatriots.
Typical of the generous folk in our area, they insisted on sharing their harvest with us. It was a kind but misplaced gesture for two reasons. We didn’t want to deny them their hard-earned bounty. Besides, I didn’t know how to cook the more exotic mushroom varieties. I should have guessed what would happen next.
An energetic debate erupted among the family groups over the best techniques and recipes to offer me. Emily, who is a sturdy, unflappable sort and structurally quite the opposite of her ultra-slim sister, was determined that the only way a cèpe should be eaten was in an omelette. I wouldn’t have dreamt of arguing.
Yves was having none of it. Dismayed at the idea of contaminating the magical flavour of the heavenly cep with any other substance, he insisted that they must be eaten on their own or at a push cooked in a blob of butter with a sprig of parsley.
Avoiding mushroom-information-overload, Jack headed to the wine cellar for liquid reinforcements. Serving it should have been simple. But we are in France. If there’s anything guaranteed to capture a Frenchman’s interest (aside from a mushroom), it’s the sight of a nice bottle of wine. Yves was in the middle of expounding the values of dried versus frozen girolles when Jack produced three different bottles of red. He asked which they would like.
Yves interrupted himself with a satisfied sigh. There was a moment of hushed silence as each bottle was reverently passed from one family member to the other – the labels studied in minute detail. The Listrac-Médoc won. New glasses were filled, contents sniffed, swirled and elegantly sipped. We returned to the subject of mushrooms.
Some of the grub-infested specimens looked pretty grotty to my untrained eye. I asked if they would be discarded. Bin a maggot-ridden cep? My innocent question was met by appalled expressions from everyone aside from Jack. What followed was a lively discussion about the most thorough cleaning methods.
Nicolé wanted to ensure I understood and asked permission to demonstrate the process. Of course, I agreed. Moments later, she had taken command of the cooker and transformed into a master chef, barking out instructions to everyone who did exactly as she commanded. She collected samples from each pannier. I produced olive oil (had to be extra virgin), butter (half-salt), garlic (pink), several eggs (brown, medium-sized), parsley and various pots and pans.
We watched as skinny Nicolé treated us to a masterclass on preparing cèpes and trompettes de la mort. Three ways. Others helped out at different stages, but she was the boss. As the culinary scene played out, there was very little arguing. Perhaps it was because she expertly produced platefuls of mushrooms that were either plain, with added garlic and butter, parsley or as part of an omelette. And just a little seasoning. That, together with fresh hunks of baguette, meant everyone’s taste was catered for.
The evening finally ended around 11 pm. Our simple impromptu glass of wine had evolved into a gourmet classic. Despite the late hour and our earnest protestations, they refused to go until the house was put back together again.
Finally, the men gathered up their precious harvests, and our friends returned to their cars, each filled with gratitude and invitations to their houses for dinner. We waved them off, touched by their sincere kindness. It was another unforgettable experience, an example of life as we know it here in France."
For more France and animal stories check Beths' excellent books, they are all about country living in southwest France and a great idea for Christmas. Want to learn more about mushrooms, we found this selection of books about champignons. And if you're passionate about wine too you should really start thinking about matching food and drink for the festive season, the French start in September!