Thursday, November 3, 2011

Find Your Own Fungus

The annual fall rain has finally arrived to the relief of all the plants that have been struggling to survive since July, which was the last time it rained here on the coast.  

Little green sprouts are popping up here and there where the week before there was only dry, parched earth.  Too bad they're all weeds.  Well, maybe not all weeds....

When I was leaving the house, I spotted a cluster of small, brown mushrooms growing in the garden on an old hydrangea stump.  Normally I would just ignore them or throw them in the compost heap but in the spirit of culinary discovery,  and with visions of mushroom risotto dancing in my head, I put on some gloves, gently picked them, put them in a plastic container and then zoomed down town to learn more about them. 

Mushroom foraging is a big tradition in France.  I remember reading in a cooking magazine about French housewives who burn down forests to ensure a good supply of morel mushrooms for their dinner table.  I'm not sure if this was a true tale but it sure gave me a sense of the passion the French have for mushrooms.

France has strict laws about how mushrooms are foraged so before running off with your sauté pan and butter, you need to read up on the rules.
The best place to start is to find the closest Mairie or City Hall, to where you're foraging.  Here they will tell you where and when mushroom picking is permitted and how they should be picked.  Usually the only tool permitted is a knife.

You'll also need a wicker basket in which to put your picked mushrooms so as you stroll through the forest, the spores can spread here and there to assist in their propagation.
But once you find some mushrooms, how do you know if they're safe to eat? 

If you trust your eyesight, your power of observation and you have a big magnifying glass you can always buy both volumes of the 1962 French classic, Petit Atlas des Champignons.  Auntie found her copies at a recent Vide Grenier.  One of the volumes describes in detail the characteristics of most of the mushrooms known to man and in the other are detailed drawings of each of them.     My favourite part is the legend:  it describes how edible each of the mushrooms is from ho-hum to delicious and from uninteresting to poisonous. 

Edible or not?
If you are a modern forager, you can always consult two reliable websites:   The Société mycologique de France or l'atlas des champignons.  If you're going it alone, just remember to check that  your life insurance policy is up to date.

If you live in the North of France you can get expert guidance and go foraging with La Société Mycologique du Nord de la France (SMNF)They take groups on foraging expeditions and sometimes eat what they find at the end of the day.
My Friendly Neighbourhood Pharmacist

The Deadly Amanita Phalloides
Rather than rely on books and websites, I chose a really safe and traditional option:  I headed for the local pharmacist.  For generations, pharmacists in France have been trained to identify mushrooms, free of charge, and at one glance they can tell you if what you found is edible or not and sometimes provide a recipe.  Alas, it's a dying art.  When once upon a time every village pharmacist was trained in mycology and mushroom identification it's now optional for anyone studying to become a pharmacist in France.  It's bad news for little villages where one bad mushroom could wipe out half the population.

In fact, about 30 people a year die from mushroom poisoning in France, most of them from consuming the Deadly Amanita Phalloides.  I can see why.  They look a lot like harmless button mushrooms.  

Well, the friendly pharmacist identified my mushrooms as collybia dryophila and even though they smelled pleasant and fresh and looked like they'd be great on top of a risotto, they are considered, "edible but not worthwhile." The pharmacist recommended that I throw them away.  Upon leaving the pharmacy, I did just that. 

From now on, just to be on the safe side, I think I'll stick to getting my mushrooms from the market.