Julia McLean provides a humorous snapshot of mushroom hunting in Normandy.
Summer was long and mostly hot. The branches of the fruit trees are bowing and flexing under the weight of apples, pears, damsons, and quinces. The underbrush in the woods is warm and damp and the mushrooms are pushing up through the wet grasses and ferns and it is time to go mushroom hunting.
The best known mushroom hunt is in Belleme in the county south of us. It’s a four day orgy or ordeal depending on your point of view. The whole course (Mycologiades Internationales de Belleme) takes 4 days and runs from Thursday morning to Sunday lunch time. It is extremely well organised. The hunters sign in at 8.30 am and pick up their folders and instructions. The group is divided into three or four smaller groups depending on their expertise – beginners, old hands etc.
At 9 o’clock everyone stomps off in rubber boots or good hiking boots in the wake of their mycologist (mushroom specialist). They enter the forest, and eyes firmly fixed on the forest floor, follow certain specified trails (a different one each day), stopping only to spot a mushroom. The specialist will identify it from its situation (under different types of tree etc) and may pick up a few if they are rare enough.
At eleven o’clock the hunters foregather, under the Greenwood tree, as they say, and pore over the specimens while the mycologist explains the species, its occurrence and whether it is native to the Orne and the forest of Belleme.
By 12.15, hot, sweaty and triumphant, people arrive in the village hall for a huge lunch. Unfortunately, not many mushroom dishes on the menu. The meal costs thirteen euros without wine so by 13.45 we are sober enough to set off again with another expert on a different trail. By 16.30, we have finished collecting and commenting, so repair to the fascinating lecture in the Village Clubhouse which starts at 5pm (17.00 to the French). The speaker is a chap from Parks and Forests who knows his mushrooms.
The next few days follow a similar pattern. On Friday there is a lecture on the therapeutic molecules found in Mushrooms and on Saturday there is a special day devoted to training local chemists to recognise mushrooms brought in by ignoramuses like me. It is also a kind of part one of a Diploma in Mushroomology (Dip.Mush as opposed to a Mush Dip which you eat with nachos?). This year the concentration is on the Bolet Mushroom – one of the most prized in France.
On Saturday, if you are really serious about fungus and aged between 18 and 25, you can enter the gathering competition. Your harvest will be judged at 5pm and the winner gets a Golden Mushroom (like Golden Globe or an Oscar but you have to be more talented). In the evening there is another riveting lecture on the French names for mushrooms.
Although I am poking gentle fun at the gravity of the hunters and the profundity of the lectures, I have to admit that the organisers have gathered a number of well known botanists/chemists from various Universities and respected chemists and teachers from the area. So expense has not been spared to educate people into the mysteries of mushrooms. The only problem I found was that, with the overload of information, I didn’t come away from the weekend able to recognise the edible from the killers. I wasn’t the only one.
I would have appreciated a few good mushroom dishes on the spot and if not, at least, a few good recipes. I’ll include a few of my favourites here which you can use with fresh or dried mushrooms. You don’t have to have a selection but the dishes are more visually appealing if you use a variety of mushrooms plus the texture is more interesting too.
Wash, dry and slice your mushrooms.
On gentle heat, melt 2-3 sticks of butter with a little oil in a wide fry pan.
When the butter is melted and beginning to bubble put all your mushrooms in the pan and shake them about.
Cover the pan and let the mushrooms simmer until they give off their juices.
Strain and keep the liquid to one side.
Melt some more butter with oil and fry a thin sliced clove of garlic.
Add the mushrooms back to the pan. Salt and pepper to taste.
Sprinkle liberally with fresh chopped parsley and serve.
Mushrooms prepared in this way can now be added to any dish.
1. You can make a light omelette and pour these mushrooms over it.
2 Add 2-3 huge spoonfuls of sour cream and when this has boiled off a bit place your mushrooms in a pre-baked pastry case, and put in the oven to heat through and bubble up. Sprinkle liberally with parsley.
3 Add two or three huge spoonfuls of sour cream, a teaspoon of fennel seeds and a glass of white wine. When reduced but still creamy, pour over tagliatelle, toss and serve. (If your sauce is too dry this is where you use your discarded liquid)
4 Pour over a slice of good sourdough toast and serve with a green salad.
Keep the previously strained liquid to add to soup or a gravy.
If you come across a puff-ball mushroom, don’t hesitate to use it. If you use it shortly after picking, it should be quite firm. Wipe over the mushroom. Slice in ½ inch thick slices. Prepare a pan with garlic, melted butter and oil. When hot, fry your slices as if they were steaks. Don’t fry for very long or the mushroom will absorb all the fats and become soggy. You can top it with scrambled egg and chopped parsley.
Photos courtesy of Julia McLean. © All Rights Reserved.