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The Mushroom Hunters

Musseron, what is ed from which the English word “mushroom” is derived

There is a cassette recording of me when I am very young, not more than four years old, where my father, in an attempt to entertain me during a car ride, tells me of a drink called “cheese juice.” For the remainder of the recording all you hear is me crying for a cup of cheese juice, obsessing over the idea that I might be able to drink a food that I already loved to eat. My father doesn’t say much else as I whine incessantly, “I want cheese juice!” but you can only imagine how he must have regretted ever saying those words to me.

On the first day we arrived at La Mothe it had rained lightly, and Didier mentioned in passing that it might be good for mushrooms. Like my father years before he had no way of knowing that he had just ignited one of my food obsessions. I have always wanted to forage for mushrooms, but I never have since I don’t have any idea how to distinguish those that are delicious from those that are deadly. Getting an expert’s help can be more difficult than it seems: ask a mushroom hunter to disclose where he goes for mushrooms and you are likely to receive a devious reply. Most mushroom hunters will do anything to keep their knowledge secret: they will head off in the wrong direction only to double back once they are sure no one is looking; they will lie about what they have or haven’t seen in the forest; they will hide their baskets and sneak into the woods at odd hours.

Despite this, once I knew there were mushrooms to be found and had been tipped off that Didier knew where they were, I could hardly restrain the impulse to pester him non-stop until we went out to find some. I limited myself to asking only as much as I thought he could tolerate without deciding to strangle me. Amazingly, he was completely open to sharing what he knew with us, partly because as foreigners we didn’t pose the same threat of raiding his treasured spots in following years. He told me some of the varieties of mushrooms that could be found: cepes (a type of boletus mushroom known as porcini in Italy), chanterelles, girolles, black trumpets, musseron. He listed others whose french names I didn’t recognize. From my work as a chef, I felt confident I could recognize the cepes, chanterelles, black trumpets, and musseron if I saw them.

Even with Didier’s help, however, we weren’t guaranteed to find anything. July had been an extremely dry month in Burgundy, so chanterelles and girolles, which normally peak then, hadn’t appeared at all. The rain on the first day of our arrival was the first good sign that conditions could change, but it was far from enough to encourage significant fungal growth. A week later, though, everything changed: a frigid north wind blew in, plunging Burgundy into near freezing temperatures, and storms doused the ground with rain for three days straight. I’ve never been happier to have such bad weather while traveling. Once the storms passed, warmer days followed with intermittent showers. Moisture and warmth: a fungus’ best friends.

Before sunrise on a cold and rainy morning–eyes still unfocused–we head into the woods

On the first day that Didier thought there was a chance of finding mushrooms we drove through fields to one of his preferred foraging grounds. We didn’t find anything edible, but he familiarized us with the area so that we could return on our own to look more. The next morning I forced Vanessa out of bed at 6am to look again. After an hour and a half retracing our steps with no luck and on our way back to the farm Vanessa decided to show me one small white mushroom she had seen the day before on the off chance it was a type we wanted. I looked at it and no, it wasn’t a type I recognized. We turned to go and I stopped dead. Right at our feet were three large, round, tan caps, partially obscured by leaves that had fallen on them. My nerves pulsed. I said something but my memory didn’t catch it because I was overcome with the moment. Lowering down I inspected their stems. They were bulbous, fat at the base and tapering toward the cap. They looked in every way like the porcini I know. Cepes!! We had found them. I cut them at the base and carefully placed them in the basket. We hurried back to the farm.

The first find: Cepes!

Back at the farm Didier knew as soon as he saw us that we had found something. Even he was surprised, because in truth it was still too soon after the storms for much to have grown. He was also much more eager to search again: his optimism in the first days after the storm had encouraged us to go look even though chances were low of finding anything, and now that he had seen our find he was encouraged that there might be more.

Over the next three days we awoke every morning before sunrise, groggy and cold, slipped into rain-gear and gum-boots and headed into the woods. We even squeezed in a rapid search on our last morning at La Mothe before catching our train at 8:30am to go to Spain. In all we found about ten cepes of three different varieties, two chanterelles, a handful of faux girolles, a few pink field mushrooms, and about 30 very small musseron. It wasn’t a legendary amount, but it was more than enough to make us feel victorious, to give us an appreciation of what goes into foraging for wild mushrooms, and to provide for a few very delicious snacks.

Didier cleans the base of a perfect cepe with his knife

The result: pan roasted cepes on soft scrambled eggs

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