Tuesday, August 25, 2009

French Mushroom Memories

It's been a cool, rainy summer in Michigan and last night, once again, the sound of rain on the cabin roof was gentle and persistent. Campers all over Michigan may have turned over in their sleeping bags and sighed, but I smiled because I knew that in the dark of night, chanterelles were bursting forth in the nearby aspen, conifer and oak forests.

Chanterelles, or cantharellus cibarius, are fragrant golden mushrooms, which are an epicurean delicacy around the world. I first saw them in the oak forests near St. Marsal, a small village in the Pyrenees Mountains in France, where I went mushroom hunting with my friend Simone.

As we headed uphill out of the village on that first forage, we crossed paths with a fellow hunter and I commented on the huge number of mushrooms he had found. I didn't need Simone to tell me, as she later did, that I had committed a faux pas. The man stared past me and, despite the obviously overflowing basket, shrugged his shoulders, pursed his lips and with a seeming lack of interest replied: "quelques-uns, pas beaucoup," meaning a few, not many.

As the days wore on, I developed, under the tutelage of Simone, the tunnel vision that is a must for any good mushroom hunter. Together we moved silently through the forest finding bagfuls of chanterelles .

On the last day of my stay, Simone was busy and, with a couple of hours before lunch, I decided to make my first solo forage. There had been lots of rain so I had high hopes.

Walking with a large mushroom bag over my arm, I passed through the town square. The usual group of old people were gathered there and one of them said: "Looks like the American is going mushrooming." "Do Americans know anything about mushrooms," asked another. Everyone turned and looked at me questioningly. I tried to look confident, but my spirits flagged. All of a sudden, I carried the burden of an entire nation on my shoulders.

Trying to show some of that famous American can-do attitude, I waved and marched determinedly out of the village. An hour and a half later, soaking wet and mud-splattered, I was without a single chanterelle. It was clear that someone had been there before me. Soon I would have to head back to the village, past the stares and knowing smiles of the old folks.

I was at the bottom of a steep-sided ravine with a level outcropping at the top that looked like a perfect place for chanterelles. It was slippery going, but finally I made it to the top. I got a good footing, grabbed the edge of the ledge and lifted myself up. As my eyes came level with the flat ground, I gasped. Spread before me were dozens and dozens and dozens of perfect golden chanterelles, enough to fill my bag to the top.

I walked triumphantly back into the village and across the town square, where the group of old people watched me, but, according to tradition, said nothing. My husband had come out to meet me. As if on cue, he said (in French), "Wow, you found a lot of mushrooms." I looked not at him, but at the group, shrugged my shoulders, pursed my lips, shifted my bag to my other arm and with a seeming lack of interest replied: "quelques-uns, pas beaucoup."

I've found thousands of mushrooms since that day, but I can honestly say that none have tasted as sweet.

Even if you are not up for mushroom hunting, chanterelles are often for sale in speciality food stores and good supermarkets. If you see them, buy them and try this simple, delicious pasta sauce. Click here for the recipe.

To see photos of St. Marsal, my most recent mushroom finds and other woodland discoveries, click here.

Bon appetit,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Monday, August 10, 2009

Colorado Outdoors

Aspen Colorado is renowned as a hangout for the rich and famous. It is fun to see Lance Armstrong whiz by you on a uphill climb as if your bike were standing still or perhaps to see Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell at a local restaurant. No matter how many celebrities you gathered together, however, the real vedette would still be the spectacular nature of Aspen and the surrounding region.

Recently we spent five days in the area with some favorite friends and relatives. There were picnics on the lawn of the Aspen Music Festival and School while listening to classical music played by the two Gold Medal winners of the Van Cliburn piano competition. We biked from Snowmass, where we were staying, to Glenwood Springs - an unbelievable 42 mile-trip that's all downhill along the Roaring Fork River to the Colorado. We hiked near the Continental Divide; into the secluded Hunter Creek Valley; and, most spectacular of all, from Aspen to Crested Butte.

Crested Butte is 25 miles south of Aspen, but by car, the shortest route is a bumpy 110-mile circuitous three-hour trip. As the crow flies or, in our case, as the hiker hikes, it's only about 12 miles from trailhead to trailhead.

It's no walk in the park, however. The first seven miles are all uphill, climbing from 9,580 feet of altitude at Maroon Lake to 12,480 feet at West Maroon Pass. Even more than the steep climb and the thin air, it's the sheer beauty of the place that takes your breath away.

Part of the 1.9 million acre White River National Forest, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area covers 173,000 acres of some of Colorado's most beautiful scenery. Many of the trails in the area were first used by the Ute Indians, whose family groups once hunted and fished large territories in Colorado and Utah (whose name comes from the word Ute).

We began the hike at Maroon Lake, which mirrors the Maroon Bells, two peaks each more than 14,000 feet high. The early morning trout were rising, but there was no time to fish since we had a six to eight hour hike in front of us. After a mile and a half ascent through luminous Aspen forests, we arrived at Crater Lake, where the vista includes not only the Maroon Bells, but the 14,018 foot Pyramid Peak.

Between Crater Lake and the West Maroon Pass, there are two stream crossings. The water is cold and fast-moving, but we were able to wade across. Once above the tree line, the going was slow and hot. We were lucky - some years the pass is covered in snow even in July.

The top of the pass is a red-clay moonscape, but a look through the notch reveals a magnificent view of the Elk Mountains and miles and miles of verdant meadows. The surprise as you descend is that the fields are not green as they appear from above, but instead are alive with the vibrant hues of millions of wildflowers: orange, purple and red Indian paintbrush; pink, blue and white columbine; yellow lilies and sunflowers; magenta lupine; white candy tuft; cobalt bluebells and dozens of other varieties, small and large, cloaking the mountainside in a riot of color under a sun-filled, clear blue sky.

In "Afternoon on a Hill," the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:

I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.

To see more photos, click here. 

Happy trekking,

If you would like to hike from Aspen to Crested Butte, check out these links:

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Aspen to Crested Butte
The Alpineer, Hiking Aspen to Crested Butte
For transportation back to your starting point, contact Jon Galli at BrioLimo.

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor