We awake early to a foggy morning, wrap up warm (it’s cold now, summer didn’t last forever after all), and let the chickens out. They, as is their wont, stare at us, gurgle weirdly, and then proceed to continue digging to China. They seem to have settled in nicely. The last few days we have received four eggs each morning, one from each chicken, and the eggs have increased slightly in size every day. I take this as a sign that the hens are happy and well fed (as are we, thanks to the eggs).
As the sun burns away the last ghosts of mist, I wander the perimeter of the farm, gathering rosehips to make more syrup (the last batch having disappeared, mixed with sparkling white wine, fairly rapidly). We have had deer and coypu visiting us, but no sign of a fox (although this may be deliberate on the fox’s part). The day is warming up nicely, and my thoughts turn to the wild.
The forest near us can be seen from the farm, jagged tops of pine trees pointing to the sky on the horizon. It’s a mix of managed pine woodland, and ancient, wild tangles of oak and beech and birch. It goes on forever.
I hop on my pink rusty trusty bicycle, and pedal along the lanes. Buzzards and egrets, outraged by my presence, flap up and away from the fields as I pass, the sun warms my face, and I remind myself that is not yet spring, that we still have a winter to get through. I have been preserving and pickling the little bits of produce I have been given, or foraged, since we arrived, to bring a tang of warmer times to our winter meals, and the last on the list is mushrooms.
It was a very dry summer here, and mushroom season has been delayed. In fact, there is talk in some regions of the poorest wild fungi harvest for years, although compared to my foraging in and around Bristol (dear Bristol, how are you?) it’s a positive glut. We’ve had a few days of wet weather, and I’m hopeful. One can buy foraged mushrooms in the local greengrocer; trays of girolles and hedgehog mushrooms and trompettes de la mort. Almost everyone here seems to pick some kind of mushroom, be it field or forest, and it’s not a fashion or a fad, it’s simply something people do. We’ve had folk stop by with boxes of field mushrooms, and even someone who called in to let us know about a patch of parasol mushrooms he’d spied from his car. I like these people.
I have a spot, not far into the woods, that I’ve had my beady eye on for ages, as it looks ideal for ceps and other boletes. A bouncy, mossy forest floor, green and bright, beneath some old, widely spaced pines. In my experience boletes like edges and clearings, a bit of breathing space, and I’ve spotted a couple of fly agarics (those fairytale toadstools), a good sign, as they like similar conditions to ceps.
Righto, warning time. This all sounds very bucolic and lovely, and it is, but mushrooms could put paid to that, neither swiftly nor gently. Eating a misidentified fungus or plant will end horribly. I shall not go into the details of organs shutting down or the no hope of treatment horror. Get some books, learn from an expert, never eat anything unless you are one hundred percent sure that it is what you think it is. The saying ‘there are old foragers, and bold foragers, but no old bold foragers’ is worth remembering. Even in France, where mushroom hunting is embedded in rural culture, there have been, this year alone, several cases of mushroom poisoning. Be safe.
I arrive, sweaty and somewhat out of breath, all arms and legs perched like a heron on a too-small pink bicycle, at the forest edge. I lock the bike to a tree, and start up the path into the woods. I am passed by two cars, driving along the dirt track, departing. Foragers, sir, thousands of ’em. They got here before me. Curses. I get to the spot I have in mind, and it is covered in mushrooms of all shapes and colours and sizes – fly agarics, various russulas, false chanterelles, but nothing edible (or certainly not what I am after, anyway). I get an awful feeling that an hour ago, the forest floor was covered in a million perfect ceps, and they are now in those cars, the occupants laughing and joking to each other and juggling mushrooms. This is probably not quite true.
There is an annoying habit that some mushroom hunters have of picking anything vaguely the right size or colour, and discarding it if it is not a bolete (boletes have pores instead of gills, so it is easy to tell by looking at the underside of the cap), so the ground is littered with broken and overturned fungi; a sure sign that someone has been here before me, and an unnecessary, even damaging, thing to do.
The fact that, every year, the woods are combed and picked through by locals yet, every year, the mushrooms return en masse brings doubt to the recent controversial picking ban in the New Forest in the UK.
From my days of tramping the woods of South-West England, I recall finding ceps in hollows in the ground and under piles of fallen branches, so I nose around, lifting things and generally getting covered in leaves and dirt. But there they are. Bay boletes, not as highly regarded as the cep, but delicious nonetheless. They’re picked and cleaned in situ, and popped in my bag. I untangle myself from the undergrowth, and head deeper into the woods.
I pass several people, all wandering around, eyes to the ground, baskets or buckets in hand. We acknowledge each other with a polite “bonjour”, each silently cursing the competition.
I decide to get off the path, away from these usurpers, and fight my way past a huge pile of logs and into a clearing. Soft green grass underfoot, sunlight ribboning through the trees, and a fine collection of ceps, from tiny to huge. Jackpot. I fill my bag, resisting the feverish temptation to pick everything in sight, and head home.
“Holy Schmosbey!” exclaims ML (don’t ask) as I come in the door laden down with mushrooms. Even the cat looks impressed. Now to preserve them for later use.
There are several ways to preserve mushrooms. Cooking and freezing works well, and you can salt, pickle, then cover with olive oil for a classic anti-pasto style nibble. With ceps and other boletes, drying is my preferred method; the flavour is concentrated, and the mushrooms may be reconstituted later in water, or powdered into an umami-rich seasoning for soups and stews. It is advisable, of course, to eat a few straight away – butter, garlic, bacon lardons, hot sourdough toast.
To dry your mushrooms, simply brush them clean, removing any troublesome wildlife (maggots are not delicious, even fried in garlic and butter) and trimming away any blemishes. If you have some older specimens, especially with bay boletes, it might be a good idea to remove the spongy pores with a knife or your finger. Slice them thinly (though not paper-thin), and pop them on a rack so the air is able to get all around and in between. Place them somewhere warm – I put mine in front of our wood stove – until they are completely dried out. They will shrink alarmingly, but do not fear, all the flavour is still there. They can now be stored in a clean airtight jar.
I picked around 3kg of fresh mushrooms, which yielded 2 large jars of dried to help see us through the months ahead, and I may well head back to the woods tomorrow.
There is snow forecast for next week, time to batten down the hatches. It’s going to be a long winter, and we arrived too late to grow any produce to keep us going. We’ll light the stove, and eat eggs and dried mushrooms.Follow @wordpressdotcom