Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Foraging for Cèpes

Three years ago when I first met our neighbours, Monsieur and Madame M, I had found out that each autumn they head down to some woods south of us to search for cèpes.   The first autumn, I felt it would be too forward to ask if I could tag along, the second was too dry, and the third saw such fierce competition among the foragers that some cars shoved others off the country road.

Since being a mycophagist from an early age, finding cèpes places high on my bucket listSo when I recently got a phone call from an excited Madame M that her godson has spotted the first cèpes fruiting near his farm, I was very happy.  I was instructed to bring a cap to protect my hair from the spider webs strung along the trees, a walking stick, and galoshes.  They warned me we may not find any.  I now know they didn't have the heart to tell me I would be the one not to find any.

A recipe of Madame Ms:  sauteed cèpes 

The next afternoon saw us packing their car with our stuff and persons, and off we drove to the Dordogne border.  We went to the godson's farm to let him know we would be going through their woods.  Though the French highly regard politeness and being bien élevé, I suspect the real reason of notifying Phillippe is that the time for cèpes foraging overlaps with the hunting season. It's being responsible to know who is wandering about your property.

Monsieur M and Phillippe roam the farm each morning looking for game

We stood talking all together in the farm's courtyard listening to Phillippe, a beau gosse if I have ever saw one--tall with a ready, infectious smile and thick black hair.  He was clad in knee-high boots the colour of which matched his wavy locks.  Caspar, a young Golden Retriever, pranced about.

Some of the farm buildings, the courtyard is off to the left.

Though quite physically imposing, Phillippe kept his gaze down while softly telling us that spotting cèpes is in the eyes.  With a quick, upward glance, he said, and I have the eyesWe then bundled back into the car and went to the wooded area.

I love forests with their dappled shade, sheltering canopy, and sweetish smell of damp decay.  This one contained many chestnut trees, and their hairy, broken capsules were strewn all over the forest floor like bizarre, little wigs.  Monsieur M said that there is always food to be had here: mushrooms, game, and nuts.  We started out all together, but gradually we lost track of each other for long periods of time. 

Every once in a while, one of my companions would surface and show me their finds.

After harvesting by twisting and pulling, the bottoms can be shaved clean with a knife

They would always yell across the forest, Rien?  And I would always have to reply, Rien.   You see, apparently I don't have the eyes. Then they would wander off again, leaving me alone.  I didn't mind being alone, but I craved to be told a specific technique how to spot brown-capped mushrooms which are mostly buried under brown leaves.  So I would ask each time one of my group popped into sight, so how are you finding all of these cèpesThe reply was always it is in the eyes.

I asked if mice were taking bites out of the mushrooms, but the answer was slugs.  Then off they would go again, leaving me to ruffle the leaves with my walking stick, looking for cèpes in vain.

A bit discouraged, I went back to the car and found no one there so I returned to the forest.  This time I found boletes, but not cèpes; these had yellow tubes/pores instead of white.  I also found extremely hard and woody shelf mushrooms.

A colander for mice?

More time passed than I must have realised.  I heard someone shouting my name and one of my companions appeared.  They thought I had gotten lost.  A shouting volley then began, alerting the rest of them that I was found and the search was off.  We returned to Phillippe's farm, and I got to see the rabbits, goats, and ducks.

Caspar really warmed to me.  He followed me around as I took photos and sporadically would stand up, facing me with his paws resting on my shoulders.  He was such a darling and tried to enter the back seat of the car with me just before we left.  I wondered what Dayo would think of his smell on me.

Monsieur and Madame M let me off in front of my home, and as we unpacked the trunk, I was given a generous amount of mushrooms from their large basket. Still miffed that I was unable to find any cèpes, I suggested perhaps one needs to spot a gently rounded mound of leaves, shaped so because a big mushroom is in the process of raising them.  No, said Monsieur M, it could just as well be a log.  There it is then, I am none the wiser.

Madame M put up some conserves the next day.

She gave me a simple recipe for my fresh cèpes and instructed me to wipe them clean with a moist cloth which is the preferred way to wash mushrooms in general or else they get waterlogged.

Dirty cèpes

Clean cèpes

Gather together butter or olive oil, fleur de sel, black pepper grinder, and minced, flat-leaf parsley/garlic. Slice the mushrooms.

Saute them in the butter or olive oil for about ten minutes.  A few minutes before finishing cooking, toss in the garlic, and just before taking them off the heat, add the parsley and freshly ground pepper,  giving it all a stir. Sprinkle on the fleur de sel.  Their meaty taste with a nutty undertone and silky texture was certainly pleasing, but it's their freshness that bowled me over.  Dried cèpes, however, have their uses with their intense flavour,  and they feature often in many of my recipes. 

Back at the potager, Dayo was doing his own foraging in the wild area of our garden--a mountain of brambles covering a big cherry tree stump--which I keep for small wildlife.

He was so intent on exploring, he paid me no mind.  Perhaps he caught a whiff of Caspar?  He then disappeared out of sight.

À la prochaine!