When Dédé and Françoise proposed a walk in the woods, little did I imagine what a unique moment this would be, for me. Françoise’s email ran as follows “Mercredi, à 14 heure veut tu venir avec André et moi aux champignons? Nous serons de retour pour 17 hr. On vient te chercher si tu peux ? Gros Bisous. ‘Aux champignons? In December?!! I concluded that ‘aux champignons’ would be an expression, a watchword if you like, to denote a gentle ramble in the countryside.
Since Nick and I bought our French house eleven years ago we have never been for a walk in French woods!
When I think about that it is rather extraordinary. We have walked often enough along the shores and coast of the Cotentin, round La Hougue many times, and less frequently inland within our neighbourhood. But we have not experienced true French countryside at first hand. One reason is that ‘the right to roam’ does not exist in France. Much land is in private ownership and much of that is managed for hunting. ‘Chasse garde’ or ‘Chasse prive’.
We were picked up at 2 o’clock and the first surprise was that we would be going by car. Dédé drove us to a bit of well-established woodland that he has known since he was a boy. Indeed as a boy he used to forage for mushrooms. I think it was a clandestine activity; I am not even sure we should be here today, there are wooden signs nailed to trees all around. It would not be giving too much away to say that the locality is called Montaigu, a sprawling area of woodland either side of the main road to Valognes. Montaigu la Brisette covers an area of some 1500 sq. km. We drove down a few lanes and then a track. Dédé parked the car. There was a very fine drizzle, at times more like a swirling mist, which persisted throughout the afternoon. It was rather pleasant: humidity and fungi are happy companions. We walked into the woodland with some purpose and before long our hosts were stopping and staring at the ground. And there they were, small brown circular shapes with fluted edges, the caps of Chanterelles. Chanterelles, also known as Girolles, Cantharellus cibarius, are probably the best known species of the genus Cantharellus. Wikipedia tells us that the mushroom is orange or yellow, meaty and funnel-shaped. On the lower surface, underneath the smooth cap, it has gill-like ridges that run almost all the way down its stipe, which tapers down seamlessly from the cap. It emits a fruity aroma, reminiscent of apricots and a mildly peppery taste and is considered an excellent edible mushroom.
Our mushrooms, my expert mycologist sister has since told me, were Cantharellus infundibuliformis. A common mushroom that grows in large groups in wooded areas and damp places. They are characterized by dark brown caps that measure up to two inches across and brownish-yellow stems. The underside of the cap features narrow veins rather than gills. They are known as Yellow Legs and have a pleasant aroma but are very bitter if eaten raw. They are best when added to dishes that are slow cooked which makes them tender and much more flavoursome. They will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to a week and they are very easy to dry.
We browsed our way through the woods, stooping to gather freely where the toadstools were fruiting. Once you knew what you were looking for their congregations were not difficult to spot. They appear, in pockets, in much the same places year after year. We all gathered a magnificent haul of the dainty mushrooms. Along the way we saw other fungus species. Dede gave me their names and I later emailed Françoise: “J’ai trouvé les autres champignons dont nous avons parlé aujourd’hui, Peziza orangée, Clavaire choufleur, Pied de mouton. Il y avait , je pense un autre quatrieme ‘quelquechose de bois’ que j’oublie? Donc Peziza s’appelle Orange Peel fungus (zeste du orange), Clavaire choufleur s’appelle Coral fungus, Pied de mouton s’appelle ‘Wood Hedgehog fungus’ cela veut dire Herisson du bois!! Ce nom-là est tres drôle.”
At the end of our walk Dédé stopped to take some small pine tree branches for Christmas decoration then we took a circuitous route back to the car. As we swished our way through the thick and loosely packed leaf litter, with the starkness of the tall skinny pine trees and the prickly holly scrub all around, I was reminded of Middle Earth, and hobbits, and hidden places where secretive and unseen beings may be watching. These woods are known to be home to wild boar; we saw plenty of evidence of scrapes in the rich, vegetative soil, especially beneath trees. Wild boar root for acorns but there were few oak trees around. I wondered if the animals had been searching for truffles. Ever since I read Richard Fortey’s homage to woodlands I have learnt that truffles might be more widespread than is believed. The locations where you can find truffles are not often shared between fungi officinados. They are expensive. I checked one supplier’s prices: a smooth black truffle about the size of a conker would cost you £49. There is so much mystique around the subject.
Delivered to our front door we thanked Dédé and Françoise as profusely as we could in flowery French, for such a wonderful and very special afternoon with them. Fungi foragers do not easily share their haunts and expertise with others. Once indoors I set to and sorted my haul into mushrooms that would be dried, others to cook within a few days and, following Dede’s advice, I removed all the stalks which would be used to make a veloute.
The following day I sautéed some in a pan with butter then folded them through some saffron tagliatelle with crème fraiche. Another way to eat the fresh little mushrooms is to fry them in a pan until crispy and then make an omelette around them.
Drying mushrooms is a very straightforward process. Various methods are suggested although I discovered that putting them in a very low temperature oven did not work as the mushrooms started to cook and yield their liquid. Better was putting them on a wire rack on top of the wood-burning stove. I have a proper food dryer and dehydrator but not where I need it!
Gathering wild mushrooms then taking them home to create tasty dishes; it doesn’t get much better.