lundi 16 novembre 2009

Searching for cèpes

Wild mushrooms in my gardening basket


With my wire basket, it did look more like I was going clamming than hunting for wild mushrooms in the thick carpet of fallen oak leaves under the trees of the Forêt de Rambouillet -- anything edible, preferably delicious, and especially cèpes -- Sunday morning, as our very French James and host noted. It was the annual mushroom hunt, proposed by my husband's former brother-in-law, also formerly the husband of his former sister-in-law, who was there this time. The last time we went, only two of their grown children were there among a company of friends and family. They hadn't seen one another in the very nearly 20 years since -- well, since so much troubled water flowed under a bridge of sighs, but everyone was very civil and pleasant. Remember, this is France.

We rose early and crossed the fields and small villages on the far side of Mantes, the A13 highway and the entire rest of les Yvelines to be there for the second departure at 9:30 am. The early birds had gotten a start at 7:30 am, and you could see why it was worthwhile once we had covered a bit of this corner of the forest, noting the quantity of rejected mushrooms and "chapeaux" strewn about, chapeauless stems sticking up through the detritus of the forest floor. Clearly, we weren't the first to scour the terrain for treasure. From beyond the clumps of dried fern and oaks, I heard voices.

"Tu peux être sûr que les tables au marché à Versailles étaient lourdes de cèpes ce matin," I heard one slightly discouraged individual say, finding fewer cèpes in the forest than the shoppers in nearby Versailles surely were that morning.

Still, Audouin nearly filled his smaller basket with wild mushrooms, although my more optimistically sized one was a good deal less filled, for our host to help us sort. One never wants to be uncertain about what to keep to cook and what to avoid at all costs with mushrooms. Coming across my first group of some dinner plate-sized red-orange ones, brighter than any fiery orange leaf fallen nearby, I called out to one of the well-informed.

"Et ceux-ci? Ils sont bons ou non?"

"Bon," replied my companion, "d'abord tu va bien planer si tu manges ces champignons, et puis ça sera la mort." Hallucinations in a relaxed state followed by death.

"Merci!" I called back across the trees to him, leaving the bright orange topped mushrooms studded with what looked like coarse sea salt a wide birth. One of the more city women (with an excellent sense of humor) appeared at my side.

"Ah! Mais qu'ils sont beaux ces champignons! Quelle si jolie couleur!"

"Oui, mais on ne doit pas les toucher," I passed on the intelligence, "Ils font planer, et puis ils tuent."

"Mais qu'ils sont jolis!" She wouldn't hear that they weren't still just the prettiest mushrooms and wanted my agreement. I smiled almost as brightly as they shown in the fall sunlight among the fallen birch and oak leaves and nodded enthusiastically. She seemed satisfied. I turned my attention to her red jacket, something like a cross between a fashionable quilted ski jacket and a windbreaker, now tied around her waist. It had saved me from wandering too far off from the group, spread across the forêt.

"Oui!," her chuckle resounded in the little thicket where we stood, "J'aime porter les couleurs qui se voient pour ne pas être perdue dans les bois!" I looked at my own sensible L.L. Bean shell in basic black and considered my predicament should I lose sight of her. I made a mental note to get a brightly colored jacket for next year.

"Au moins j'ai ça," I agreed, touching the shocking pink Indian print scarf tied around my neck and tucked into my jacket, where it was safe from brambles and the wire of my basket.

Despite my sober colors, like those of my husband, I managed neither to get lost, nor to lose him or the rest of the group, and sometime later, the very last of us trudged up the hill toward the place where we had parked our cars. James glanced at my basket and said, "Ton panier m'inquiète beaucoup." As he'd already been through it a couple times, I figured I didn't likely have very much that could cause that much suffering, or death, but he set to sorting through it, tossing edible but not tasty mushrooms aside, rattling off their names, along with those that were returned to my basket as worthy of the frying pan.

There were pieds de mouton, which his former wife (my husband's former sister-in-law) said I must prepare them with a dollop of crème fraiche, smiling to show me how happy these mushrooms prepared this way make her, "Un délice!" I prepared them for lunch with fleur de sel de Guérand and olive oil and served them alongside the pork roast with prunes yesterday, completely forgetting about the crème fraiche until it was too late. I had some, but nowhere near good enough to serve with wild mushrooms, fresh from the forest.

There were some others, tinged light blue, that have the smell of anise.

Others that didn't bear much description.

From the underside of some, James used his knife to cut away the spongey part and tossed the bits around the sawed tree trunk we were using as a large table.

"Mais tu devrais les jeter dans la fôret!" said his former wife. James shrugged mildly.

"Oui, tu as raison, comme ça on aura plus de champignons." Apparently, this part of the mushroom carries the spores, for which we were so careful not to commit the unpardonable sin of using plastic bags to carry our harvest. The plastic prevents the mushrooms from releasing their spores as we walk through the forest, depriving everyone of many more of what nature provides so freely and we were carrying away. Bringing up my husband's wife's second husband, an unfortunate choice of subject for his friendly anecdote (it was not a nice story), which we all overlooked, he said, "Tu sais, il a mis ça près des arbres dans leur jardin, et ils ont eu plein de champignons."

I didn't look at my husband, but my eyes having to go somewhere other than remaining stupidly fixed on the mushrooms, I glanced at my husband's old-friend's sister-in-law. We smiled. It's lovely to have lots of mushrooms in your garden.

"Comme de la mousse," she added, with a smile. I actually try to get rid of moss in my garden, not having a particularly natural one, but I smiled, too, like moss was as delightful as wild mushrooms springing up around your trees.

And then, there were the cèpes, of which we were fortunate enough to have finished with several. These, she made sure to instruct me to prepare on their own, like the pieds de mouton. The rest, that I could cook up all together.

And, now, if you will excuse me, I need to go get some parsley to go in the omelette with them.
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