Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Foraging for Mushrooms in the Snow

On Sunday morning when I peeked through the curtains at 6AM, all my hopes of foraging for mushrooms went "poof,"  or maybe "swoosh" was more like it.  As the French say, "il pleut des cordes" or as we say, it was raining cats and dogs. 

Along with the rain was a strong wind and the temperature had dropped overnight to near freezing.  Very strange for this time of year and not the best conditions to traipse around a forest looking for mushrooms to say the least.

I'd been looking forward to our mushroom foraging trip to Sainte Agnès ever since I spotted a poster for their Fête de l'Automne et des Champignons tacked to an old weathered door in the old town in Menton about a week ago.

I've always been fond of Sainte Agnès, perched like a nest high on a mountaintop, 800 metres above sea level overlooking Menton and the sea.  The view is more like something you'd see from your seat in an aircraft than from the ramparts of a small French village.

 The first time we visited was almost 10 years ago and I was smitten with the pretty, narrow cobblestoned streets that felt more like walking up and down a roller coaster track than the streets of an ancient village.  It's beautiful too and one of only 157 French towns with the honorific of "Plus Beaux Villages de France."

The view of Menton and the sea from the road to Sainte Agnès

With the almost 20°c drop in temperature the night before, I thought darkly that all this rain may have become snow in Sainte Agnès so I called the contact number on the poster to see if the event was still a go or not.  Event organiser, Mr Jean Claude Rosier answered the phone and optimistically suggested that we come by for coffee so we dug out our scarves and boots and off we went.
Daniel, the potter
By the time we'd arrived in Sainte Agnès, the rain had stopped but the temperature was even colder than it had been on the coast.

In front of the Place de l'Eglise and the Town Hall building where the event was being held, we met a burly potter named Daniel who was creating a large traditional urn from grey clay on a potter's wheel just outside the entrance.

Inside was another artisan, Mr Jean Pierre Vautherot, making his sturdy, artisanal baskets, perfect to take on a foraging expedition.   Of course I bought one.
Mr Vautherot's artisanal baskets
The organizer of the event, Mr Rosier and his good friend, Gunnar were there to welcome us, coffee was offered as promised, and a few moments later, we were joined by a young French couple who like us, had braved the weather and were eager to forage too.

After some discussion, Gunnar generously offered to take Hubby and I out to a trail a short drive out of town.  By the time we collected our things and climbed into Gunnar's Land Rover, it had started to snow.
Sainte Agnès
As you can imagine, spotting mushrooms on a forest floor is challenging at the best of times but when they're covered in snow, almost impossible.  My early foraging training from my Granny kicked in and as we walked through the forest, along a red gravel and stone path I spotted mushrooms here and there, covered in snow.

Even though we'd brought our brand new Opinel mushroom knives that we'd bought just for the occasion, we never got to use them.  Gunnar told us that the current trend in foraging in France is to dig down into the earth and pick the mushroom, root and all, rather than cut it at the stem.  The tradition of using a basket to collect them still holds true as the gap in the weave permits some of the mushrooms' spores to fall through and spread after they're picked.

But how do you tell the poisonous from the the edible?

These days, foragers are more likely to invest in a wild mushroom iPhone App rather than consult a pharmacist who in the past was trained in mushroom identification.  The once mandatory mycology courses they took are now optional so fewer pharmacists are able to help identify your mushrooms after a foraging expedition.  Last year, I found some mushrooms in our garden and luckily our middle-aged pharmacist in Menton, who had had mycology training in school, identified them as inedible.  There went our hopes of a mushroom omelet for dinner!


The hours flew by while we climbed through the forest, foraged, and chatted with our guide, Gunnar, whose travels and philanthropic projects had our rapt attention and admiration.

Once we'd each collected a decent number of mushrooms, we headed back to the Town Hall. 

While we'd been foraging in the snow, the organizers had been busy assembling a huge display of hundreds of foraged wild mushrooms on long tables at the front of the Town Hall.  It was surprising to see such an interesting variety of mushrooms, all gathered from the nearby forests. 

Some were edible, some were not.  One tray of amanita phalloides or "Death Cap" and another of amanita muscaria both looked innocent but were poisonous and they were on display too.  These deadly mushrooms claim a few lives each year in France.  The most recent was on September 12 when a 55-year old man who failed to return home after a foraging trip was found dead in the Rhone-Alpes region. His pockets were filled with foraged mushrooms.

amanita phalloides or Death Cap mushrooms
Mr Rosier Identifying mushrooms in the traditional way

Everyone placed his basket of mushrooms on a table and we all gathered around as Mr Rosier carefully sorted through our baskets and placed each one mushroom on a cloth covered table, naming each and telling us whether they were "edible," "edible but not worth eating," or "dangerous."  Luckily, none of ours was dangerous.
Three of the most desirable mushrooms from our foraging were the yellow Autumn Chanterelle, the Sanguin with their slightly red gills and the Pied Bleu.  The young French couple even found a golf ball!
In typical charming French style, while Mr Rosier was identifying our mushrooms, everyone who had gathered offered an opinion on how to prepare them.

"This one is best in with pasta," someone said, pointing at a Pied de Mouton.

"This one has a delicate flavour and is good sautéed in olive oil," piped up someone else.

"I disagree," someone offered.  "You should use a light oil like peanut."  "Olive oil will overwhelm the flavour."
Autumn Chanterelle

Pied de Mouton (top), Sanguin (r)

And so went the discussion and recipe exchange until we all began to get hungry and it was time for lunch.

A long table was set.  Wine, charcuterie, bread, cheese, salad and fruit appeared and everyone including the basket maker, the potter, the organizers, the foragers, friends and family all joined together for a lovely lunch while outside the snow had stopped but the temperature had dropped even more.

Our first experience in mushroom foraging almost didn't happen but I'm glad we ignored the weather, and made our way up to Sainte Agnès.  Our hosts were welcoming and hospitable and it was a shame that there hadn't been more people there to enjoy it.
Funny thing was that after all that effort foraging for mushrooms and being surrounded by them all day, we left completely mushroomless. Next time we'll have to keep a few for ourselves.



Sarah said...

What an interesting afternoon, not least to be subjected to snow in October!

Shame you left without a mushroom though. How on earth did that happen?!

Lost in Provence said...

Wow! Bravo to you both for being so brave and for sharing it with us in this fantastic post!! I have to admit it made my toes chilly just reading it...brrr...

And no mushrooms à l'emporter? Booo!!!!

Gustia said...

Now that you mention it, maybe it was all just a wicked, mushroom picking, slave labour plot!

Gustia said...

Thank you! Being Canadian, I felt it was our duty to fly the flag. Don't worry, next year, I plan to sneak off with a few mushrooms. he he.

Food Gyspy said...

Just LOVE IT! French fungus in the snow, with a side of slave labour. Terrific content Jennifer!


Anonymous said...

Love all your photos! It's so great going mushroom "hunting". Last year was my first time and I loved it!

Nicola said...

What an amazing day out! Loved reading about it all and your photos are gorgeous.