You may remember that one of my goals on the self-sufficiency checklist was to start foraging for some of my food, as you can't get any cheaper than free. So far this has proved rather difficult, for though we live in the countryside, this part of France is a very tame countryside, patchworked with farmers' fields that have been there for generations, and which either have lost or never had the bounteous English institution known as the 'hedgerow' (hm, will have to research this...). This past week, however, while walking the dogs, I did find some hazelnuts that had fallen from a tree by the side of the road and filled my pockets.
The French also have a very strange idea of managing their national forests (or at least around our area), as it appears to include regularly chopping them down section by section, rather than the thinning and maintaining-type policies which actually preserve the ancient forest ecosystems. As a result, the only thing that can be found on the forest floor is brambles, and these amid distressingly uniform rows of young trees being farmed up for the next cull. This also means we lose out on quite a few varieties of mushrooms which are typically found near venerable old trees, living in symbiosis with them for hundreds of years (such as the chanterelle). We do, however and most fortunately, still get the 'king' of mushrooms, the cep (porcini).
Now I was never a big mushroom fan growing up, as my experience of the multitudinous fungus kingdom was limited to shop-bought, bland button mushrooms, that even in the most delicious of recipes to me just seemed like eating a sponge. Living in France, however, I began to notice and appreciate quite a few other varieties, but I still rarely cooked with them, in part because they bear a hefty cost in the supermarkets. This all changed last fall when my neighbor Richard introduced us to a few easily-identifiable mushrooms that were simply there for the taking in the nearby forest where we were already taking the dogs every couple of days. Most unfortunately, this was at the very tail end of the mushroom season, and our newborn mycophilia was abruptly quelled with the arrival of winter's frost, having only seen us enjoy a sparse handful of ceps.
It may have only been a short couple of weeks, but it was already evident that I was obsessed. There is something about mushroom hunting that must invoke the most primal aspects of our being, unlocking that inner hunter-gatherer who scans her terrain with hawk-like precision and a focus unlike any other and crows with delight as she pounces on her prey (an easy feat in the case of mushrooms, but a thrill nonetheless). And the pleasure of the hunt is only augmented by the return to the present-day mind, as it races with recipe ideas and calculates how much money was saved or not spent in the making of that meal.
I must add a disclaimer here, however, that foraging for mushrooms is not something to be taken lightly for one's own safety. The good thing is, however, that two of the best eating mushrooms are unmistakable, and they are the only two I eat without first having Richard check them (and this only after having him ok quite a few). One is the parasol mushroom, which I will post about as soon as I find one, and the other is the cep and its relatives. The cep belongs to the Boletus genus, which is extremely easy to recognize due to its distinctive shape and the foam-like tubes on the underside of the cap (instead of gills). The cep is the tastiest, but many of the other boletes are great to eat as well, with the only worry being you might come across one that is very bitter.
One upside to this cool and wet August is that the mushroom season has started early. In the days following the rains we had last week and the week before, each time we took the dogs to the forest I was tingling with excitement, but was disappointed up until a few days ago when the boletes finally began to appear. We have an advantage over some of the other mushroom hunters in that we tend to go very off the beaten path in following the dogs, and we have found a great secret place for some lovely boletes. I hadn't seen any quite like these before, with the very orange caps, so I only picked three and had Richard give me the thumbs up first.
Here is a close-up of the sponge-like tubes on the underside of the cap.
We simply cut these up and sautéed them with butter and thyme and served them on the side of a tomato and mozzarella salad, absolutely delicious (when they are young and the 'foam' is white you can eat it, but once it has gone yellowy, you remove it and only eat the flesh of the cap and the peeled stem). Then we returned to our spot a few days later and got quite a haul.
The short ones with the fat stems are true ceps and the rest are other boletes. Unfortunately the latter were a little past it at this point, and we had to throw a couple out and trim the others pretty severely, but we still had plenty to make a dish that I had seen on the River Cottage Mushroom Magic DVD and been wanting to try, cep lasagna, which I will tell you all about in the next post!