All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

If you go down to the woods today...

Phallus impudicus4Image via Wikipedia

Look in the autumn issues of the magazines in France, and you will see pictures of mushrooms...artily arranged on the kitchen counter of a tarted up Provencal mas if it's something like 'Maison et Jardin', or barely distinguishable from the mucky hands holding them if it is more like the 'Chasseur Francais'.

You will see people emerging from woodlands...not furtively, in the nature of those who by some wild co incidence have just met a member of the opposite sex who happened to be wandering in the same woodland at the same time - probably looking for the common stinkhorn......but openly, bearing containers.

Some, the ones in smart sludge coloured 'outdoor' clothing, will be carrying  panniers...these are the eco conscious who think that this allows the spores of the mushrooms, dropping through the slats, to propagate themselves on the journey from the wood to their car - if they also want mushrooms propagating in the boot of their car as the spores fall through the slats on the journey home, well, good luck to them.

Others, wearing brightly coloured clothing bearing no distinguishable designer name anywhere about it, have buckets, or those disgusting plastic trugs sold by all self respecting French garden centres. They clearly have no wish to have mushrooms propagating themselves in their cars.
This is one occasion when the yellow baskets optimistically issued by local authorities for rubbish recycling will not be in evidence...too many holes. And anyway it would mean moving the rabbits.

You will wish to participate in this quintessential French pastime.....where to start?

By all means buy an illustrated guide to mushrooms and do a little preliminary research on what grows in which conditions and at what time of year, which will save you from looking for blewits in October.

Do not take it with you while you go mushroom hunting otherwise you will spend the time you should be using to pick them deliberating in a huddle over whether that one that Angie has just picked is a coulemelle or something nasty that will lay you low in revenge for you pulling it up.

Neither should you go to one of those mycological society exhibitions which proliferate in damp autumns all over France.
You will only frighten yourself.
I have been mushroom picking for years and they still frighten me.

You enter the salle de fetes to find that long tables have been set up with every sort of fungus the dedicated local enthusiasts could find, laid out and neatly labelled with latin names...and sinister indications of their level of toxicity.
For inducing alarming palpitations there is nothing like encountering something proudly labelled with a skull and crossbones which bears a close resemblance to what you have just eaten for lunch.

Every pharmacy will have large posters of mushrooms on display at this time of year and, in theory you can bring in your collection for identification, thus avoiding being brought in yourself for medication.
In practice, you won't learn very much as the modern pharmacist doesn't tend to be a mushroom fanatic and will just advise you to put anything that isn't obviously harmless in the dustbin...which is not the object of the exercise.
It was the stuff you weren't sure about that you wanted identified, not the stuff that was clearly edible.

Where I first lived in France, the village next door had a renowned mushroom fanatic in the pharmacy and in  the season it was a toss up whether there were more people carrying mushrooms in or more people carrying suppositories out.

One thing was clear...mushrooms had priority.

You could be in the midst of discussing whether  the Elixir of l'Abbe Perdrigeon for emotional shock was better in your particular case than Baume de Perou for the skin eruption following said shock or whether you should use both to be on the safe side except that in neither case would you be able to claim the cost back from social security... when a man with a bucket would enter and your skin eruptions would have to await the verdict on its contents.

You could learn a lot from the lecture that accompanied the spreading of the contents onto the plastic tray used out of season for weighing babies.
Gills, rings round the stems, bulbous or straight stems, colours, all had their significance and no collector got away without undergoing a brief examination in what what he had been told, so it was no wonder that there were no fatalities in that pharmacist's bailiwick.

I had picked up my mushroom lore from Gerard, who discovered the oyster mushrooms growing on the poplars at the back of my field and who believed in the value of a practical demonstration of what grew where....thus it was imprudent to pick mushrooms on the verges as they picked up lead from passing traffic no matter how edible they might be could tell the false panther from the real by breaking the stem and looking for the pink threads.... which ceps were worth gathering and which were not worth bothering with.

Thanks to him I ate decidedly suspicious looking stuff with no ill effects, but there were still little quirks to learn.

If you were susceptible...and it was as well not to experiment to find out whether or not you were...eating shaggy caps and drinking wine with the same meal would have you carted away in an ambulance, so it was best to gather them just before eating them for breakfast.
Mark you, thinking of some of the gentlemen of my acquaintance, there was no guarantee that they had not drink taken at no matter what early hour of the morning, so I have to suppose that they were just not susceptible....or avoided shaggy caps on principle.

If you are looking for field mushrooms, they can easily be confused with the yellow stainer, which is unpleasant rather than toxic. The trick is to scratch through the skin and look for a yellow tinge...but if you miss it it's not a disaster. Just try cooking them and you'll have a pan of yellow liquid...sure sign to chuck them out and try another field.
Something no one locally will touch are the big horse mushrooms...distinguished from field mushrooms by the slight smell of anise on the cap. I've eaten them for years with no ill effects and benefit from local lack of enthusiasm to fill my buckets and then the freezer.
Puffballs are super when young, sliced and cooked in butter....but the best of all are the coulemelles, parasol mushrooms, growing in clusters in open woodland.

They are, for me, the queens of the mushroom family...rising pale and elegant from the autumn leaves around their base to take home for immediate consumption with butter and parsley....and to resurrect from the freezer as a garnish to chicken through the wild, cold months of winter.

I don't know who you can find to help you learn about mushrooms....some people are very careful to guard the source of their supply, particularly if it happens to be in the enclosed grounds of the chateau up the road where they have no right to be...whereas others are delighted to share their passion.
I suppose you just have to drop onto the right person.

But there is one thing I do know.

Even if you take a pannier, do not wear sludge coloured outdoor clothing.
Follow the example of the plastic bucket merchants and wear something bright, because the mushroom season coincides with that of the chasse, short sighted gentlemen who think anything that moves is one of the specially reared pheasants that their association has released the day before to provide them with 'sport'.

Even they know, however, that pheasants are not bright red or yellow and that they are forbidden to shoot at parrots and canaries, so wear something bright and your backside will be safe from a peppering of shots.....

Wear sludge and as you leave your hospital bed you may well be humming to yourself that well known French folk song

'Nous n'irons plus aux bois.....'

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  1. All sounds far too complicated for my liking and the price is high if you get it wrong. I think I'll stick to the button mushrooms from Tesco and fry then up nicely with beans and chips.

  2. Steve, and as far as I know you don't stand the same risk of being shot as you bend over the veg display, either....unless things have changed drastically since I left the U.K.

  3. Even though our French house backs on to glorious woodland (we have the chasse there to prove it) we have never had the urge to go out mushroom collecting. I think this stems from when I would occasionally go out blackberrying and get a bad tum from over-indulgence. Gathering copious amounts of food for free means I stuff myself as I walk along (I like raw mushrooms) and could probably not resist from sampling what would turn out to be a no-no.

    Incidentally, I deleted my latest blog post because someone thought I had crossed a line with quoting some of the residents. I've put a little substitute post in though.


  4. I would love to find a good book on mushrooms, but it needs to be in English or I still will not be sure at the end of it. I always believed that the pharmacist was the answer but it seems not.

    I have always been scared of mushrooms I do not know, and that is most of them, even sometime I am not sure of ones I do know! I must make more effort as there are so many mushrooms around here and I would like learn which are edible. Great post. Diane

  5. French Fancy, I used to go mushrooming in the U.K., and seeing people with buckets aroused my hunter gatherer instincts again when I went to France.
    I'm don't scoff as I pick... amazing how childhood training I wasn't going to kill myself on a mushroom and, anyway, I had Gerard to show me what's what.
    I think a knowledgeable friend is worth a ton of books.

    Yes, I saw what happened with your post, so commented again.
    Hope I don't start a war on your blog.

    Diane, do get into mushrooming. It is great fun, a good excuse to get out and about and the results are delicious!
    I'm trying to think of a solution...but what about getting a really well illustrated book in French which clearly shows not only the mushroom but also its culinary and toxicity ratings...crossed knives and forks and skull and crossbones are the usual ways....and then get a cheap book in English so you can match up the names.
    If any of your neighbours are mushroomers, what about going with them...though a lot of people are so timorous they only pick the obvious and well known...the St. Georges, the field mushrooms and the you stand no risk and it's a good introduction.

    Give it a try.

  6. I used to gather mushrooms with my father when I was a child, but they were growing on a sports field near our house, and were just the plain white button mushrooms. We would go out to get them about 6am before anyone else got to them, then have them for breakfast.

    Your post has brought back this lovely memory, and also made me want to find out a whole lot more about the vast varieties of mushrooms....thanks x

  7. Ayak, I used to go out early with my father too...and the mushrooms were our treat for breakfast.
    I've always enjoyed mushrooming, and I'd be keen to hear how you get on hunting for them in Turkey.

  8. how on earth did you learn all of that?! mushroom picking is a national sport here, and i've toyed with the idea of joining in on all the fun (and then getting someone who actually knows what they are doing to weed out all the toxic ones for me), but there's a small problem... the guipuzcoanos are notoriously secretive about their favourite picking haunts and won't share with anybody! so i can bone up on all the theory i like, but my chances of finding myself a plateful of the prized "hongos" are pretty slim!

  9. mondraussie, secrecy can be a major problem!
    I was lucky in that I knew Gerard, he was keen to teach me, and he was welcome everywhere.

    You can look for the 'can't make a mistake' ones using a book, but I think for the 'prized' stuff you need to make a mushrooming friend....

  10. I like good fresh mushroom...

    We used to find those giant puff balls in the fields by our house in Northumberland - you could cook mushroom steaks from them.

    My grandfather was great mushroom picker too - all sort; puff balls, shaggy caps, field mushroom, balleatus (?)


  11. Mark, it's great luck to grow up with someone who's keen on mushroom picking.

    Would the last ones be 'bolets' do you think?

  12. I lost interest in mushroom gathering after I heard a faint knock on my door one evening, and found my elderly neighbor lady, unconscious on my front stoop. I found her husband, still in their home, laying on the bathroom floor. All he was able to say was "we ate mushrooms tonight". They had been gathering mushrooms for years....but as she said to me later..."I guess I made a teeny mistake".

    It sounds like fun....but I think I'll choose to get mine at the market!

  13. Mmm,I feel all hungry now and dying for a cepe or something fried in butter garlic and parsley.

  14. We used to go mushrooming in our woods in France then take them to the pharmacie for identification. Invariably she told us to chuck the lot, whilst taking the bag from us and offering to do the same. I often wondered if we'd really stumbled on a crop of something special and she was having them for herself. Probably not!

  15. Delana, that was really offputting!
    Gerard dinned it into me only to take what I was sure of and only then if it was in top condition, but every year there were fatalities a bit west of us where they had families coming up from Portugal for the vendange...and there was a mushroom which looked like one they picked in Portugal, which was good to eat, but the French version was highly toxic.
    Did the vignerons put up warnings?

    Sarah, the mention of mushrooms has that effect...but I cut out the garlic on Madeleine's advice. She said it could overpower the delicate ones, though it was O.K. for ceps.

    P(V)LiF, one becomes suspicious after a few years in France.....

  16. I guess in CR you'll be hunting for far more exotic food than mushrooms.

    Thanks for your support, Fly and I hope we will be blogging right to the end (like in our nineties, typing away with our bent little fingers)

  17. I tried to post a comment a couple of days ago and as my internet is intermittent (grrrr) it has not appeared!

    You have your lovely Gerard and we have our Gilles introducing to the delights of autumn.
    So far we have had and abundance of field mushrooms that we have eaten, dried and disposed of. Have also had a lovely crop of bolets appeared the same place as last year, they are in the process of being dried. We have been introduced to 'nez du chat' but are not too sure. Will give them a miss - maybe next year.

    We find, that as incomers, it is a bonus to get on with our French neighbours, they are an invaluable source of information regarding hedgerow 'culinary bites'. I feel for those who disregard their French neighbours, they are missing out on so much!

  18. "as far as I know you don't stand the same risk of being shot as you bend over the veg display" - given Tesco's price on comestibles these days robbery is more their game than murder.

  19. There is some very odd mushroom picking behaviour around these parts - whatever people are wearing they tend to go stock still if you happen on them whilst you are walking the dog. It's as if they think if they stand like that you will not be able to see them, despite whatever bright attire they are wearing. Bizzare.
    There seems to be some secrecy around the exact location of the cepes, but as I had one once and was decidedly not impressed they are welcome to them!!

  20. There's an award for you over at mine if you'd like it xx

  21. I love mushrooming. Over the years I've learnt to identify quite a few - sticking to the unmistakeable ones (parasols, st. George, trumpet of death or whatever it is in English, delicious despite it's name, ceps, lactarius deliciosa, oyster msuhrooms, etc)! It helps with identification that wild mushrooms get sold in the market around this time, and you know (hope!) they've been checked by the market h&s inspector before being allowed on sale. If Mondraussie reads this, a hint - look for characters walking the hills looking intently at the ground and carrying plastic bags. Always a giveaway. Then go back on a Thursday (most mushroom hunters go out at the weekend, gives the mushrooms time to resprout).

  22. French Fancy, the Costa Ricans don't eat mushrooms!
    I went to look for a book..and found that the only things available were academic tomes which, given the non eating mushroom culture, tell you everything except whether they are good to eat.
    There are things like oyster mushrooms on my canna india...and something looking very like a coulemelle in the garden...but I can't find out more!

    Trishas, how right you are! If the neighbours are on track they can tell you so much.

    Steve, so it's a sort of 'stand and deliver' at the checkout...and on my last visit to the U.K. I thought they were so much cheaper and better than their French equivalent...though I preferred the Co op.

    Roz, there are ceps and ceps. Gerard showed me which ones were worth picking.
    As for the standing immobile...sounds as if they have ostrichlike tendencies...

    Ayak, thank you very much. I do appreciate you thinking of me.

    Pueblo girl, that's good tip! Ours won't use plastic bags...they think it makes the mushrooms sweat, but I can't see that unless you are planning a hundred mile trip with them.

  23. Mushroom hunting?! I swear I must be French. That sounds fantastic!

  24. Enn, I think there a few residential courses in mushrooming in France....

  25. Hi Fly, thought you might like this blog that I stumbled across, perhaps via the Avocat's diary. An intelligent and interesting view of things European, in my opinion.

  26. Mark,I hadn't come across that one....and the article on Senat, spooks and Le Monde was a good abstract,I thought.
    That's been a dirty little case, hasn't it?

  27. The mushrooms my grandfather collected were boletus edulis

  28. suppose that's what I call bolets.

  29. Forgive me for lowering the tone and being vulgar, but isn't that mushroom rather suggestive? :)

  30. nodamnblog, looks as though it has been drinking....
    We have hordes of these things in the garden poking,slap wrist..peering through the shrubbery.
    Interesting to observe the reaction of visitors...from fits of the giggles to a long hard look directed at the pair of us... via suggestions that weedkiller should do it...