Foraging for the star of the edible fungi…

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Their taste, associated with the roots of the trees these mushrooms grow under, will surprise you: meet the “ Boletus Edulis”, first described in 1782 by the French botanist Pierre Bulliard and still bearing its original name.

Doesn’t ring a bell? Maybe the word “fungus” will turn you off, but what about: porcino (Italian for piglet), the gentlemen’s mushroom (Austria), the rodellon (for the Spanish) or “eekhoorntjesbrood (squirrel’s bread) for the Dutch, may I present to you: the French cèpe de Bordeaux.

One can call them the “hog mushrooms”, as they are the pigs favourite, but I can assure you here in the South everybody adores them. It is indeed a lovely edible mushroom, having an intense flavor and at the same time food that is low in fat but high in protein, vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. With its nutty and slightly meaty flavour, its smooth, creamy texture and its distinctive aroma, this mushroom will surely find the way to your heart.

Here in this area, everybody goes in search for these culinary, mountain treasures! They don’t buy them, but find them in the wild. Local pharmacies will tell people like you and me, whether they’re safe to eat, if your local friends are not around. Watch out, as a similar, but poisonous one, called the devil’s bolete, exists as well, having the same shape, only its red stem will give it away.

Each year we go “mushroom-hunting”, on the “Madre” (the Pyrenees). Our loyal, local French friends know exactly where to go to find them, year after year. A wicker basket and a knife is all we need, as our basket will allow the spores to reseed when falling on the ground (plastic bags just make them rot quite quickly). We do as we’re told, we don’t rip them out, but cut them with our very own mushroom knife, as this leaves the underground undisturbed, ready for new mushrooms to arise.

The time of the year to go for this kind of hunt, is the end of summer, preferably after some days of heavy rain (the moon apparently has no influence on their growth). The idiom “springing up like mushrooms after the rain” says it all!

Some years they grow in abundance and even before we leave the house we’re told that cèpes will cross our path. Wandering in the lower parts of the mountain is no use, as like most mushrooms, the cèpe fears the first frost. They grow on their own or in a nest, called “nids”.

Having found them and later meeting other people, we tell the common lie: “ I didn’t see any”, as this is the French custom of not saying where they are.Harvesting places are a secret, well kept by the “ramasseurs”. No need to be greedy, as you’re only allowed to harvest them for a family meal, no way you can sell them or forage more than 5 kg per person, unless you want a fine when caught! Between 5 and 10 kilos a fine will do, but if you collect more then 10 kg, be sure to expect a sanction of the “procureur de la république”! You’d better drive away fast then, or as the French say “C’est le moment d’appuyer sur le champignon”.

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We don’t wash our harvest, once home, we just brush the mushrooms clean! And ready we are, to eat them raw (lemon and oil as dressing), sautéed, fried or baked, or in wonderful ragouts or sauces. Remember, slow cooking will bring out their best flavor.

Those we don’t want to use straight away, can always be sliced and dried in the sunshine and stored in glass jars. Whenever we need them later, we rehydrate them in hot water and even use that water for soups, or just throw them in a sauce to give that extra taste. In case you decide to freeze one of those dishes or the mushrooms themselves, let me warn you, their flavour takes over the whole freezer if the bag isn’t well closed. I discovered that one Christmas evening, when serving a lovely homemade ice-cream dessert, no way you could eat it, as the overall flavour was mushroom!

French mushroom recipes have indeed mushroomed. The following, found on some local menus, can only give you a small idea what to do with them. These will surely make your mouth water: cèpes à la Bordelaise, cèpe frits, cèpe aux omelettes, blettes aux cèpes de Bordeaux,gros Ravioli de foie gras et cèpes, ris de veau poêlée aux pâtes fraîches, sauce aux cèpes, cèpes Bordelaise (read garlic!), duck with cèpes (made from confit, wild mushrooms and garlic), salade de cèpes aux copeaux de foie gras, velouté de cèpes, côte de bœuf avec des cèpes de Bordeaux et des frites maison, entrecôtes Bordelaises aux cèpes de Bordeaux, creamy scrambled eggs with Bordeaux cèpes, sole cooked on the bone and stuffed with cèpe and pan-fried foie gras, magret de Canard with cèpes de Bordeaux, mushroom and spring onion quiche… need I go on?

We were once given the “trumpet of death”, a black chanterelle-like mushroom. No way the French will tell you where they grow and as they are rare, you won’t be able to find them. They look awful, but taste delicious in an omelet. Local butchers even sell them as truffles in their famous “paté”. If you get the opportunity, don’t hesitate to make a garlic cream sauce with them!

The “tête de nègre” is another rare find, smaller and darker than a cèpe, but sublime. Then of course we have the “lacterre délicieux” or “roussillous” as they call them here ( to be eaten with parsil and garlic) and of course the chanterelles, called “giroles” (this year loads of them). Aren’t we spoiled in this region?

If you have recipe ideas that spring up like mushrooms while reading this post, you’re welcome to share them!

Forever searching, collecting and gathering, lots of things to do… Or as Shirley Conran (English writer) would say:

Life is too short to stuff a mushroom.

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