Having left the month of September far behind (and not written in these columns for six weeks) I have just looked up from many tasks to realize that the autumn is about to fall. Leaves on more vulnerable trees are already turning various shades of yellow and gingery-brown and those of the sturdier woods are about to do the same. No surprises there, even if the recent lack of rain and strong winds will probably mean that the fall of the leaves will be more sudden when it happens. No, what intrigues me in this passing season is the measurable increase in the amount and frequency of wild fungi that are growing everywhere. On my own poorly maintained lawn, for example, huge clusters of mushrooms (or toadstools? I have been informed that the terms are generally interchangeable) spring up overnight. And that started me thinking: How many of these are edible?
Cursory research has told me that most of them are fit to eat and quite delicious at that. But will I grab the next overnight bunch and throw them into a pan with herbs and garlic? No, because I do not have the knowledge or the confidence to do so. With the best identification guide in the world I would still draw back – just in case.
Which begs the second question: Why and how have we, in certain countries, broken the inheritance of knowledge that in times past would have enabled us to harvest these foods with grateful assurance? The French still do so.
These are the cépes du foret (even if they grow on a lawn.) They are wild and unpredictable in their growing patters but are an integral part of rural French cuisine. It was in the Lot Valley in southwest France that I came to love and appreciate this culture of fungi. On market day town and village squares were filled with stalls selling local produce and wild mushrooms, dozens of shapes and sizes) were everywhere. When markets opened early in the morning people would elbow each other out of the way to get the first pick – although I suspect that the culinary rivalry had more to do with the pre-breakfast Pernod or wine than genuine antagonism. Some towns even dedicate certain days of the year to the cépes and priests bless barrow-loads as they are paraded through the streets. Again, pastis and wine contribute to this liturgy.
But that is an ocean away. I still hold back. I attempt to create pommes forestieres with rehydrated wild mushrooms, expensive and thoroughly tasteless, or even the better class of supermarket ‘shrooms such as portabella. But it simply ain’t the same.
In many parts of rural France it is the custom to pick a wild fungus and, if unsure of its edibleness, take it to the local pharmacist who would be skilled in its identification. Can you imagine doing that in my part of the world? Imagine taking my overnight harvest into CVS or Walgreens? I think not.