The first rule of hunting mushrooms in the French countryside? Don’t ask any of the other mushroom hunters where they hunt mushrooms. I’m joking of course, but sort-of not. Everyone has favorite spots they’ve discovered and it’s considered rude to ask.
But if they invite you to come along on the hunt? Then you’re good to go. Ben Blair and I were invited by our friends Mark and Richard and Dominique — and we jumped at the chance.
Right now, in our area, there’s a lot of talk about mushrooms. Everyone says this is the biggest mushroom season in living memory. We were told mushroom season typically ends in late September. But it’s been a strange year weather-wise — and here it is November and it’s still going strong. The mushrooms pop up so quickly, that the hunting season will keep going until the first freeze.
Side note: Coming from six years in Oakland, I’m actually looking forward to the winter. Then again, I still haven’t forgotten how harsh it can get here, so I’m trying to appreciate the gorgeous fall weather as long as it wants to stick around.
There are a ton of wild mushrooms in this area. A ton as in hundreds of varieties. Some are edible. At least one is deathly. And there are others that will give you bad indigestion. Cèpe mushrooms are the coveted ones, and happily they are everywhere this year. And cèpes are the only ones we hunted for — we passed a bunch of other ones, but paid them no attention.
In fact, to be safe Richard and Dominique only pick cèpes and leave the others alone (even if they’re likely edible) just to be safe. And Mark said his goal is to learn the 3 best and 3 worst varieties of mushroom here, and then he can ignore the rest.
People here hunt for mushrooms on both public and private property, but mostly public. We were told you can’t hunt on public lands (they’re called forêt domaniale) on Tuesdays and Thursdays — so that the mushrooms don’t get over-picked.
It was really fun to learn how to recognize the cèpes. We were told it takes a sharp eye, and they weren’t joking about that. They totally blend in with all the fallen leaves on the forest floor. Can you spot them?
Something distinctive about the cèpes is that they look spongey underneath, instead of having the lined fringe. The thing that surprised me? The ones you really want are about five days old, and they’re HUGE. I was expecting to hunt those little white/grey button mushrooms you find at the grocery store but these were totally different.
Once you find a mushroom, you can use a special pocket knife to cut them at the base — level with the forest floor. But sometimes, even trying to prevent it from doing so, the whole root would come out.
One of the things I found the most fascinating about the mushroom hunting culture here, is that once you’ve picked your mushrooms, you can go to any pharmacy, and the pharmacist will check them to make sure they’re not poisonous. It’s a complementary service and we’re told it’s just part of their job — in fact, mushroom identification is a course in pharmacy school.
Mark explained that two different times he’s taken a basket in to get checked and the pharmacist said he had to toss the whole batch out because there was one poisonous mushroom — and if the poison one had touched any of the others it could contaminate them as well. The pharmacist made Mark wash his hands immediately! I should note: mushroom safety is no joke here. Every year you read about accidental death from mushrooms in the papers.
Once they’re collected, the cèpes needs to be cleaned and prepped. That includes washing them with water and a bit of vinegar. Then scraping off the inedible parts — sort of like the hair on an artichoke heart — and slicing them. Cleaning them is important because when you pick them, they typically have nibbles from bugs and woodland creatures.
Once they’re prepped, you can cook and eat them immediately, or preserve them. You can hang the slices to dry, then store them in a glass jar — they’ll last at least a year. Or you can cook them in butter, until they’re reduced with no liquid, then freeze them.
Ben and I both agreed that mushroom hunting seems like something our kids would love — and we remembered wanting to make an Olive Us episode about mushroom hunting when we lived here before. Maybe we’ll get a chance to take the kids out hunting this weekend.
Your turn! Have you ever hunted for wild mushrooms? Can you confidently identify the edible ones? Or would you trust your pharmacist to spot the poison ones? : ) I’d love to hear.
P.S. — The countryside was so beautiful during our hunt that most of the photos I snapped ended up being landscape shots instead of mushroom-hunting shots. Hah! You can see more from our hunt on my Instagram stories.