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

1 comment:

  1. What a delightful tale, Geraldine! I can just imagine those folks watching you with their jaws dropping. Must've been a good feeling. Hahaaa! The recipe sounds delicious--I love chanterelles.


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