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.


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A BlogFeast in Montpellier

Last Saturday, Hubby and I rocketed west for three hours along a smooth as silk motorway to Montpellier, a popular university town in the bountiful Languedoc region of France for a special occasion.  You've got to love French motorways.  The tolls are high but they're worth every centime.

Bloggers extraordinaire, Heather of Lost in Arles and Aiden of  Conjugating Irregular Verbs invited me to join them and a group of talented English speaking expat bloggers for lunch Code word:  BlogFeast 2012.

Our lunch in Montpellier made me think about blogger and grateful house guest, Wijnand Boon.
This summer, Heather and I each hosted Wijnand who is walking 6,000 miles across the world with one mission: to prove that the internet is a tool for bringing people together and not the predator-ridden trap it's depicted as.  If there were any occasion to prove his point, our lunch was it.

Here we were, a diverse group of bloggers from the United States, Australia, Canada, and Britain, all gathered together, and we all had some things in common:  we'd all pitched our tents in France, we were living the joys and frustrations of life away from our home countries, and we'd met each other through our blogs.  How cool is that?

Place de la Comédie
The big lunch was slated for Chez Boris, a restaurant in the town centre apparently known for it's high quality beef.  Affixed to the wall outside, above the entrance to the restaurant, were plaques proclaiming the quality of their beef and the napkins at everyone's place setting was a butcher's diagram of a cow.  As a vegetarian I felt a bit like a spy inside a meat eater's secret clubhouse.  As I always say, one thing I enjoy about blogging is that it brings me to places where I wouldn't normally tread!  Thankfully, our thoughtful hostess, Aiden, arranged veggie options which were delicious and appreciated.

The lunch was a fabulous occasion.  As with any happy get together, we were a loud and animated bunch and I kept thinking that at any minute, someone would to come over to our table and tell us to keep it down.  Thank goodness they didn't.

Ceilings and wall of Chez Boris, where we lunched, covered in chalk art

My practical and curious side wished the lunch had been a sort of speed dating situation so I could have chatted with everyone, face to face, and leisurely learned their stories.  After all, there's only so much you can learn from a quick, 3 hour lunch.

After all the other diners had left and the staff was about to flip the chairs onto the tables, we took the hint and spilled out onto the street to say our goodbyes.

I left our boisterous get together with the spark of a promising new friendship and a bit of a sore throat from yelling to converse but it was worth every minute.

For the rest of the day, Hubby and I took to the streets to explore.  Modern city planners could learn a lot from Montpellier.

Tight rope walkers in the park.  I tried it.  It's hard.
Most of the down town core is a vibrant, prosperous, pedestrian-only haven making it a real pleasure to wander around without being restricted like cattle to a narrow side walk with cars whizzing around us.

The epicentre of the action is the architecturally stunning Place de la Comédie where the buzz reminded me a bit of Amsterdam where cyclists and pedestrians whiz around each other in relative harmony.
There were people everywhere.  Some of them were snacking and enjoying drinks while they people watched from the side walk cafés.  Others were strolling in the bright sunshine, perusing the scarves, purses and belts on offer in the goods market.  In one corner there was a beautiful, ornate, two storey carousel with smiling parents watching as their children went up and down and 'round and 'round.  It was a timeless scene that could have taken place a hundred years ago except for the multi-coloured tram cars that rumbled by on the periphery.

A mix of 17th and 20th century architecture
Away from the hub bub of the Place de la Comédie, we meandered through cobblestone streets to discover charming cafés, restaurants, boutiques and galleries.  It was a good visit to an interesting and welcoming city worthy of a return visit.

I can hardly wait for next year's BlogFeast.  Until then I'll be devouring new posts from everyone's blog.

Here's an idea for the BlogFeast suggestion box.  Next time, can we make our lunch just a little bit longer?

Graffiti carved into an ancient stone wall
Strange graffiti

The 18th century Saint Clément Aqueduct
Fifth Element inspired gallery exhibit
Street music
Four floors of graffiti

Groovy tram cars
Last but not least, a camouflaged cat

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Sipping Sake in Toronto

Our trip to Toronto this summer started out in misery when the air conditioning broke in our train car and by the time we arrived we were cranky, miserable, tired, and very hungry.

Ki's vast sake menu
Hubby and I debated dinner options and when he suggested modern Japanese restaurant Ki for dinner, I threw on some lipstick and off we went.  A soothing setting and pretty food was just what we needed to change our luck and put our weekend back on track, so to speak.

Three of many in our sake tasting
It turned out to be a brilliant choice.  The setting at Ki was chic, the dinner was delicious, the service was skilled, but by far the star of the show was Michael Tremblay.  Michael is Ki's Sake Sommelier.

Hubby is a big fan of sake.  On our last trip to Tokyo, he sampled many and loved a few but it was a mixed blessing. Even though we were being served memorable sake by Japanese experts, because of the language barrier we learned nothing about them.  Sadly, our Japanese is limited to, "do you speak English?", "hello," "goodbye," "it tasted good," "excuse me," and "thank you."

So here was Michael, an English speaking sake sommelier, and he was willing and able to share his vast knowledge with us.   We absorbed both his sake and his expertise like sponges.
Izumi president Ken Valvur

During dinner, hubby sipped things both rare and delicious, all the while discussing  the merits of each.  We've never met anyone as knowledgeable nor as enthusiastic as Michael. This was amazingly good fortune.

When we were about to call it a night, Michael gave us a final sake hot tip:  the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company or "Izumi" in Japanese, was producing some excellent sake out of Toronto's Distillery District, just a kilometre or so from where we were sitting right now. 

Of course the next morning we zipped right over.
A tasting flight

When we arrived at Izumi, President and founder, Ken Valvur was there taking a break between conducting personal tours so he told us about his sake and how it's made.

Izumi started operations in the winter of 2011 but with brilliant foresight, before making his first bottle, Mr Valvur sought the advice of master award winning sake brewmaster, Yoshiko Takahashi of Nagano.  She spent time at Izumi as an advisor, training staff and setting the operation on the right path.  Japan's Miyasaka Brewing Company, who has been brewing sake since the mid-1600's, served as consultants as well.  Such a depth of expertise at the outset could only portend good things.

We hadn't booked a tour in advance so we were content to sit at the tasting bar where hubby sipped his way through a "Tasting Flight" or two, each consisting of three different sakes.

Arabashiri "free run" sake
He described each as different and delicious in subtly different ways but he had a clear favourite:  the Arabashiri #23.  

We learned that the process of making the Arabashiri #23 was different from the rest.  The secret lies in the last step of the sake making process when the mixture of rice and liquid called moromi is placed in a cloth bag. The cloth bag is then placed in a press and pressure is applied to extract the liquid from the rice.

Before the bag is compressed, the liquid that runs freely from the cloth bag beforehand is called arabashiri.

Waste not, want not.  Leftover paste from the sake making process
Perhaps it was the sake talking, but when hubby sampled the Arabashiri #23, he heard notes, not words.  He described the sake in the tasting flights as skilled solo artists but the Arabashiri #23 as a symphony:  sweet, balanced and harmonious.

Naturally, we bought a few bottles to take home and share with friends.

If you'd like to sample or buy Izumi's arabashiri, you should plan your visit to coincide with their pressing days.  It's unpasturized and has a short shelf life so tempus fugit and follow their twitter feed. 
There was something for both of us at Izumi.  Before we left, I poked around the sake cooler and discovered little containers of sake kasu which is the ground, fermented,  boozy rice paste left over from pressing the maromi mixture.  I bought some to take home and play with in the kitchen.

When our weekend began so badly we thought that all was lost.  So Michael and Ken, thank you for resuscitating it with sake.

The tasting bar