Friday 5 October 2018 15:15
The problem with collecting mushrooms in France is that not only is your ordinary mushroom hunter the last in line in the food chain but is also the one most likely to get shot for his efforts. The hunting season is underway. Hunters like forests. They like the very same places where mushrooms grow as do deer, boar, rabbits and other mushroom eaters. Ordinarily that should be OK. Hunters are not supposed to be killing the hapless human forager of fungi. They are supposed to be after said deer, boar and rabbits - not people. Unfortunately they seem to have already shot all the birds and beasts and now there are only humans left.
We try to get to the forest in the middle of the day. Between 12 and 2 it is guaranteed they will be gone. Home, for the sacred midday meal - 3 courses at least - followed by coffee and a shot or two of eau de vie and a bit of a snooze.
That’s when we move in - only to find that in the natural world this is a little late in the day to expect to find any pristine champignons left. By now they’ve been munched on, nibbled at and have even become home for sundry small creatures: snails, slugs, ants and worms. It is rare to find one in pristine unmolested state.
Still all is not lost - you’d be surprised at how much mushroom can be wrested from the legion of animals and insects which feast upon them. We may be last in the line but we have the biggest claim - after all aren’t we putting our lives at risk? The hunters can return at any moment. They are excitable people. The slightest movement will have them aiming our way. How many deer run around dressed in bright orange gilets is hard to know but there are obviously enough for the half-wit of a hunter to feel justified in sending a shot in our direction.
You can’t rush mushroom gathering. It takes time to get one’s eye in. Some people are really good at it - my friend Sonja, who is Swiss, can spot a penny bun at fifty paces even when it’s hiding under half a ton of leaf mold and she’s always the first to turn over that rotting tree branch on the forest floor to disclose whole swathes of trompettes de la mort. I’m rubbish at it so I just follow her around like an unattached shadow. I think this ability to sniff out mushrooms must be a Swiss thing. I was once closely questioned by an elderly villager as to my nationality while she muttered - ‘the Swiss collect so many...‘ I said I was English to which she just made as sort of dismissive ‘humphing’ noise. I tried to redeem myself and all my fellow countrymen by telling her how I had bought cèpes in the market at a really good price. At this she double humphed - amazed that anyone would pay good money for something you could get for free! She turned away - contemptuous. They don’t expect us to know anything and mostly they are quite right!
Unlike me, the Swiss are used to collecting mushrooms from a very early age. It’s a national pastime and that’s why they are so good at it - well, Sonja is anyway. And the reason that they do collect so many is that they have a great drying machine that you can buy there. I have never seen one in any kitchen shop in the UK but no doubt they can be found on Amazon.
A foraging foray last year (with Sonja) resulted in a huge pile of mush. Even after they were sorted, all foreign creatures removed and nibble marks erased and I had made a delicious fricassée with garlic and parsley, a cèpe risotto, and a fabulous soup, there were still a lot left. So my Swiss friend turns up with her drying machine and in a matter of hours the huge pile of cèpes had been reduced to a Kilner jar full.
Now I have a drying machine too.
We still await this year’s gauntlet running exercise; the hunters are out and about but the mushrooms haven’t put in an appearance yet. In the meantime I’ve made good use of the dryer turning Tam’s copious chilli harvest into a few explosive tablespoons of fire, now trapped inside a tiny jar. The lemon verbena and peppermint too have both dried a treat and await their winter role as refreshing after-meal tisanes.
There are cèpes to be had in the market but I think I’ll have to wait until they appear in the woods or I shall be forever humiliated by yet another scornful ‘humph’ from my elderly neighbour.
You can use dried for just about any recipe which calls for mushrooms. Just remember that you will only need a quarter of the weight that you would use if they were fresh and can require soaking for up to three hours. Drain them (keep the water you have soaked them in in case you need to add liquid to the recipe) and dry them well.
Creamed Mushrooms on Fried Bread
So simple, so swiftly made and so delicious. This is a tasty quick snack or a dish for brunch. If you haven’t brought them in fresh from the fields, this can be made using those big open mushrooms you can sometimes find in farm shops or the better supermarkets.
4 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
500g large field mushrooms, chopped into bite-size chunks
275ml whipping cream
salt and pepper
juice of 1/2 lemon
4 thick slices of white bread, crusts removed
fried in a mix of olive oil and butter
4 thin rashers streaky bacon
Melt the butter and lightly fry the shallots. add the mushrooms and let them cook over a medium heat until they are limp and any liquid from them has evaporated. pour in the Madeira wine and reduce to a sticky syrup. Add the cream, bring to a simmer and cook very gently for around 10 minutes. The cream should have become quite thick. Season and taste. Stir in the lemon juice a little at a time and taste after each addition - you may not need to use it all. Place the slices of hot fried bread on four plates and spoon over the mushroom mixture. Top each serving with a crisply fried rasher of bacon.
Mushroom Soup with Grated Parmesan
This is the only mushroom soup recipe you will ever need. It is quite simply the best one - thank you Simon Hopkinson.
175g cèpes or open cup mushrooms (see recipe above)
or soak 50g dried cèpes for an hour - saving the soaking liquid
125ml full cream milk
125ml whipping cream
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small onion chopped
285ml light chicken stock (use Knorr concentrated liquid chicken stock if you have no fresh)
squeeze of lemon juice to taste
4 tablespoons double cream
2 tablespoons fresh grated Parmesan
If using dried mushrooms, strain the soaking liquid and reduce by half.
Place mushrooms, milk, whipping cream and salt and pepper into a pan and simmer. Soften the onion in the butter in another pan until golden and pour on the stock and reduced liquid (if using dried cèpes. Simmer for five minutes. Combine the two panfuls and liquidise until very, very smooth. Sharpen the flavour with lemon juice and check the seasoning. Ladle into four soup bowls and stir a tablespoon of double cream into each serving. Sprinkle each serving with the Parmesan and serve straight away.
Potatoes and Cèpes
Only cèpes will really do in this recipe but if you have but a few then this is a good way of eking them out. I love to eat this dish with a rare piece of fillet steak but actually it goes well with any roast, meaty sausages or even a couple of fried eggs - I could, in fact, quite happily have it on its own.
serves 3 - 4
200g fresh cèpes, cleaned and thickly sliced
200g cooked thickly sliced small waxy potatoes - Charlotte or Agata
2 tablespoons olive oil
sea salt and black pepper
4 cloves garlic, crushed, peeled and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons fresh chopped flat-leaved parsley
a squeeze of lemon juice
Heat the oil until moderately hot in a frying pan large enough to comfortably hold all the ingredients. Throw in the cèpes and potatoes, season and start stirring them around in the oil, tossing them about occasionally. Take a while, keeping each potato slice from sticking and making sure everything begins to brown and crisp up a little. Keeping the pan on a moderate heat, ass the butter and garlic. Continue cooking while the butter melts and the garlic cooks a little (not too much - garlic burns easily and then tastes bitter). Finally stir in the parsley a squeeze in some lemon juice. Tip into a hot serving dish.
BARGES & BREAD
Pub. Prospect Books, Aug. 2017
ISBN -13 978-1-909248-51-9
240pp, paperback with flaps
Size: 216 x 138mm
Price: £12.50 Black & white
Where to find some of my writings:
Petits Propos Culinaire (PPC) is a journal of food studies and food history published by Prospect Books three times a year since 1980. Now edited by Tom Jaine it is a mix of academic study, food history written with a light touch, and slightly quirky essays written by people like me. Amongst its contributors over the years are some of the best food and cookery writers of our time. Such a special publication continues to deserve our support.
PPC 96 August 2012:
Food on the Move
PPC 99 November 2013:
Hospital Food - à la française
PPC 101 October 2014:
The Limejuice Run
PPC 104 December 2015:
PPC 110 February 2018:
Une Mauvaise Herbe; Purslane