A year or two after we moved to France I started as a parent helper at our primary school’s swimming lessons. I sat at the back of the minibus every Friday with a tiny school full of kids, winding along little country lanes towards “the big town” and the swimming pool. I mused at what I might say to engage these cute little French guys in conversation.
“Anyone like mushrooms?” I said. In a flash 16 beady eyes were upon me (my own daughter continued looking out the window, and my son at the back carried on his Yugiho Card conversation with his friend).
“Have you found mushrooms?” one set of beady eyes asked in an astonished but ultra sweet French voice. “Well, yes, a few. ” I fibbed, starting to dig my own little mushroom hole, “And you?” I asked.
Clearly not. “It’s a little early, isn’t it?” chipped in one 4 year old, “Although we should see some girolles soon.”
The rest of the journey was spent in deep superficial discussion with this tot about the subtleties of the black as opposed to normal apricot-coloured girolle, and how best to cook cêpes. I mostly listened.
This is a girolle (or a chanterelle) mushroom and a bolete (the penny bun and porcini are part of this family).
I realised during that bus trip that EVERYONE around me was a mushroom expert and I was not. From aged 4 up. French kids (country ones for sure, but possibly all) are born knowing about mushrooms. In our rural hamlet, all 8 other residents are AAA rated mushroom hunters. They look at mushrooms I have picked and taken over for approval with expert eyes. “Ah yes, that one’s fine, you’ll have found that to the left of the path beside the beech trees, 125 paces from here.” I exaggerate only slightly.
I am not encouraging anyone reading this blog to turn into a mushroom maverick and set off immediately into the woods with a wicker basket, and die….. Collecting mushrooms can be dangerous. Mature mushrooms often look different from younger specimens and you don’t want to be getting it wrong and ending up dead or on kidney dialysis.
These days, after a few years of training, there are several types of mushroom I would happily collect and fry up in butter for my entire family.
After that awkward day on the bus, I bought a mushroom book. I had a starter one in French prior to that, but it seemed to me that the extra few quid for a book in my native language about whether or not I might die was worth the expense.
Then, on the advice of my neighbours, I narrowed the type of mushroom I was prepared to collect, from the several dozen edible local ones, down to 3. And even then, I only really collect two of them. That a) immediately reduced competition for top mushroom gathering spots and b) reduced the chances of dying considerably because the mushrooms on my list are very easy even for a clutz like me to tell apart.
You know you’ve made it and are a fully integrated member of the community when neighbours tell you within a mile or so where a mushroom gold mine is, or what day would be a good one to go out foraging. You can NEVER hope to get more specific information than that, except at gunpoint.
So, girolles or chanterelles. They are a unique and uniform apricotty colour (I’ve never dared pick the black ones, subtle taste or not). The colour of a chamois cloth for cleaning a car windscreen. This colour is always the same. They glisten like little gold nuggets under moss and fallen leaves. It’s surprisingly exhilarating when you find a little clump of them.
Next on the list of distinguishing features, their gills divide into pairs and look more like wrinkles. This is pretty unusual in the mushroom world. The cap is wavy and funnelled when the mushroom is mature. They smell lovely.
There is one mushroom, a false girolle, which looks similar – a little more orange and straight rather than dividing gills. But even if you pick one by mistake it won’t kill you, it just tastes of nothing. I found out about the false girolle early in my mushrooming days, when I rubbed my hands in glee at finding shed loads of them, on a well used mushroom track, before my neighbours had gotten there. But alas, no, I had not outsmarted my French mycologists.
There’s an etiquette to picking these mushrooms. Don’t collect tiny ones because tomorrow they will be big. I only, despondently, ever found the tiny leftovers for a long time. And, return any moss or leaves to their original position as if you are leaving a serious crime scene.
They are delicious sliced and fried with a little butter and garlic.
And cêpes or boletes. These are the ones you buy from the delicatessen for a fortune, or in jars from posh supermarkets. There are many varieties of cêpes but they have one obvious feature which makes them stand out from other mushrooms. They don’t have gills – they have a “sponge” or tubes instead. It’s obviously different and again, even a mushroom clutz like me can’t get it wrong.
Some cêpes taste better than others. There are two to avoid. One has a scarlet red base – aptly and terrifyingly called the devil’s bolete, but also rare – you’d have to be colourblind not to notice.
Don’t pick mushrooms if you are colourblind.
And the second “bad” one is the “bitter” bolete. You won’t die but one snifter of a crumb of “bitter” bolete in your dinner, and the whole lot’s for the bin. It tastes AWFUL. Neil, after consultation with one of our expert neighbours, did allow one of these to pass through double scrutiny and into an omelette. He said it was foul.
So, even with mushroom two on our modest list of two, we’ve narrowed the variety of cêpes we collect (there are many around these parts) to just a few – orange birch bolete, bay bolete, and the holy grail of the mushroom world, the penny bun. The penny bun is the one The River Cottage and maybe even Jamie Oliver go on about. Realistically, all neighbours within a 20 mile radius would have to be laid up simultaneously with the lurgy before we’d get near one of those babies.
It’s been sunny and warm all week. It rained yesterday. A couple of the neighbours ie 25% are on holiday. I’ve set my mushroom alarm for 7am. I reckon tomorrow is going to be a winner. I can’t sleep I am so excited.
Disclaimer: do not try this at home, unless you are supervised by a mycophiliac grownup.