Friday, October 3, 2014

Of Fungus and France...

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.


  1. Further information from the Net

    France's fields and forests have a wide variety of edible mushrooms but it is essential to know if permission is required to pick them. Over 3,000 varieties of mushroom can be found in France. Of these, only a few are edible. Mushrooms are picked throughout the country but the climate in the south of France from Aquitaine in the west to the Alpes-Maritimes in the east means that there is a higher quantity of mushrooms available in these regions.

    Article 547 of the Code Civil stipulates that mushrooms belong to the owner of the land where they grow. Each commune has the right to decide whether mushroom picking is allowed, can say what quantities can be picked, can charge a fee or can totally forbid mushroom picking in the surrounding forests. Therefore, before going mushroom picking it is necessary to contact either the local town hall (mairie) in the commune where the person wishes to go picking or the local prefecture.

    There are a number of rules that should be adhered to when picking mushrooms:
    •Mushrooms must be a certain size before being picked so that they have a chance to release their spores
    •Tools of any sort are forbidden with the exception of knives
    •A knife must be used to cut the stipe so as not to damage the mycelia
    •Mushrooms must be carried in a wicker basket to let the spores fall out and help propagation

    There are approximately 30 deaths per year in France caused by eating poisonous mushrooms, the majority due to the Death Cap (Amanita Phalloides). Eating non-edible mushrooms can cause problems such as digestive discomfort (nausea, diarrhoea) for a limited period of time or more serious ailments such as convulsions, tachycardia or kidney infection. Pharmacists in France are trained to identify certain fungi, and if in doubt, mushrooms can be taken to a pharmacist who will inspect them and declare whether they are dangerous or edible.

    In case of poisoning, call or go to the Emergency Service (Urgences). If possible, take some of the mushrooms or the remains of the dish eaten. Never try to self-cure, do not take any drugs, do not attempt to throw up.

  2. What extraordinarily useful information! Thank you.