Wednesday, September 22, 2010

La Folie de Champignons!




Autumn is here and it's the season for one of France's favourite rural pastimes; the seeking out, buying, selling, cooking and eating of mushrooms! At this time of year the markets are populated by mushroom merchants displaying a breathtaking variety of freshly picked, dirt-covered fungi.

Mushroom hunting is more than just a mere hobby here in France. The counrty is equipped with an army of part-time foragers who fan out through the country's forests from the end of August until the frosts of November, filling markets across France with humid mounds of chunky white pieds de mouton, or sheep’s feet; pieds bleu (blue feet – an elegant fungus with a blue stem and a smooth creamy gray cap), golden girolles (chanterelles); black trumpets of death (a chanterelle relative which is coal black); and cèpes (known in Italy as porcini), the beefy brown toadstools that are the royalty of wild mushrooms.

Of course, that famous queen of the mushrooms--the truffle (black in the case of France) tops off the season in late autumn and early winter. With its rough skin that must be peeled, gnarly form, hard, crisp texture, and that famously powerful but ephemeral perfume, the truffle for me is more of a precious seasoning than a real mushroom. They are primarily found in the Périgord and are incredibly sought after. They will also cost you big time! Anything from €200-600 a kilo!

Generally these gustatory delights are found in woodlands and forests, particularly around around oak and chestnut trees. Knowledge of where and how to find mushrooms are passed down from generation to generation. It's 'all for one and one for all' during this time of year, with everyone's well known haunts clutched ever so tightly to their chest.

It is a remarkable feat, given the quantities of autumnal fricassees, mushroom-spiked omelets and fungus-flavored sauces that the French consume, using hundreds of tons of wild mushrooms a year. Their sheer quantity is mind-boggling. Judging what I've seen so far in the markets and grocery stores, it takes a lot of mushrooms to satisfy the seasonal gluttony of the fungophilic French. And just how are accidental poisonings averted, the Canadian girl is sure to ask?

This being France, there's a bureaucracy in place for that very purpose: a network of official inspectors. But any old humble amateur mushroom hunter in France can be assured of never biting down on a poisonous fungus. All you need to do is take your basket of booty into the nearest pharmacy (there are approximately 3 pharmacies per block). All pharmacists are required to study mushroom taxonomy as part of their formal training, and will helpfully--and for free--identify your finds, often with the aid of an instructive, official chart picturing the poisonous species for the edification of the fungus-drunk public.