After this week’s rain, the event we’ve been waiting for has arrived – the mushroom season. People carrying baskets or plastic bags are seen disappearing furtively into the woods. They look round suspiciously, as if in a spy movie, in case someone else finds their secret cache.
The French are mad about garnering wild food from the fields and hedgerows. Every year at this time, the road between us and the village is lined with the badly-parked cars of mushroom pickers. The wood that covers the steep hill above the road is obviously a good mushrooming spot. Some of the people even come from other départements – don’t they have their own?
Some people have the knack of finding mushrooms. They seem to pop up in front of them. Alas, I don’t have this talent, so I normally buy them instead. Of course, it’s so much nicer to eat things you have gathered, but they taste almost as good from the market stalls. It’s just that they’re not free. Far from it. Following two very dry summers, the mushroom harvest around here has been meagre. This is reflected in the prices: cèpes (see below) can fetch up to 23€ a kilo.
My favourites are the field mushrooms, which the French call rosés des près. Even I can find and, more importantly, identify them. These are delicious sliced and simply fried in butter with garlic and sprinkled with chopped parsley.
I am also very fond of cèpes (porcini in Italy). The boletus edulis, to give it the proper botanical name, is the variety used in cooking. Other varieties are less appetizing and at least one is poisonous. Cèpes will only grow wild, usually associated with the roots of trees. Attempts to cultivate them have been unsuccessful, hence the price.
Distinguishing the edible varieties of wild mushrooms from their poisonous cousins is no easy task. In fact, some of the more innocuous looking ones are the deadliest. Local chemists (pharmacies) are supposed to offer an identification service, although I’ve never seen anyone taking advantage of this in our local pharmacie.
Mushroom picking etiquette maintains that you should always put your finds in a basket rather than a plastic bag, so that the spores can filter through and germinate to provide next year’s crop. This doesn’t stop people favouring the plastic bag method: carrying a basket around is a bit of a give-away. A plastic bag is easier to conceal under a coat.
Where you are allowed to pick is also a thorny issue. Landowners can get very shirty if people denude their woods of mushrooms, especially if they then sell them.
Recipes for cèpes
Cèpes are very good sliced and added to fried potatoes for the final 5 minutes or so of cooking, along with a couple of chopped garlic cloves. Sprinkle with parsley at the end and serve with grilled magret de canard (duck breast).
They also make a wonderful risotto. The following recipe is Italian, but I’ve added a couple of French touches. You can also make it with a mixture of wild mushrooms. Serves 4.
500g cèpes, sliced
1 glass white wine or vermouth
1 litre chicken stock
Large knob of butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
240g carnaroli or arborio rice
80g Parmesan cheese, grated
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
Handful parsley, chopped
Note: don’t wash the mushrooms. This reduces the flavour. Wipe with a slightly damp cloth or brush with a pastry brush to remove any dirt.
- Make stock and keep it warm in a saucepan.
- Melt butter in a heavy saucepan and fry onion till soft. Add the garlic, taking care not to let it burn or it will be bitter.
- Add the rice and mix it with the butter, onion and garlic so it is well coated.
- Add the white wine/vermouth and let the alcohol boil off for a couple of minutes.
- Add a ladleful of hot stock and stir until it has been completely absorbed. Then add the cèpes.
- Keep adding a ladleful of stock at a time until the rice no longer absorbs it (about 20 minutes). The rice should be al dente but not too dry.
- Mix in the Parmesan and season to taste.
- Serve in wide soup plates, sprinkled with chopped parsley.
Heaven on a plate.
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