Mushroom hunting in les Landes
Sitting in my warm apartment in Seattle, an early December mushroom outing in the SW of France seemed like a great idea. So I contacted the Sociétié Mycologique du Béarn and invited myself along on their next outing, which happened to fall during our upcoming stay in France. What I failed to consider was how cold it could be on the French Atlantic coast at that time of year!
In truth, despite what would turn out to be temperatures in the 20’s as we set out in search of mushrooms, the event was a lot of fun, in equal parts because of the chance to meet some very nice fellow mushroom lovers,because of the beauty of the forested coastline and because of the large amount of mushrooms to be found, in spite of the lateness of the season.
The Sociétié Mycologique du Béarn turns out to be (I sort of cold called on them through their web site and asked if I could join an outing) a very welcoming group of mycology enthusiasts who meet a couple times a month to forage together, compare and catalogue what they find and to share a potluck picnic together when the mushrooming is done. I emphasize the “mycology” part because members are fascinated by all sorts of mushrooms, not just the edible ones. In advance of the ‘sortie’, the president of the group, M. Yves Cestac, thoughtfully sent out a list of the mushrooms that we might encounter in the pine forests just off the beach at the Cap de l’Homy, our destination. A bit of research made it clear to me that many (most) of these are not edible. Myself being more greedy mushroom eater than mycologist, I was a touch alarmed. Then, day of the hunt as we set off into the woods, my concern was heightened by M. Cestac’s patient explanation that the point of the outing was to collect samples and not necessarily to gather mushrooms for the table. Then, as an aside he added that however, if I did find edible varieties, I should feel free to gather all that I could. This sounded more like it.
The morning was cold and frosty, but mushrooms were abundant among the pine needles on the forest floor. I inquired about the many places where the underbrush had been disturbed, leaving the ground cover turned and ruts inches deep. M. Cestac said that these marks, some only hours old, were made by wild boars, also in search of mushrooms…guess I can’t blame them. But for the rest of the day, I was alert to sounds in the forest around me as wild boars have the local reputation of being quite dangerous.
Among a large number of mushrooms who’s identities were a complete mystery to me, I recognized both red pine mushrooms (also known as saffron milk caps) and yellow foot chanterelles. I have never eaten fresh red pine mushrooms before, only dried, but have often cooked yellow foot chantis. They are very good despite the amount of work required to clean them for cooking.
Lest anyone reading should be concerned that a novice mushroom hunter like myself should be turned loose to gather potentially dangerous varieties and to judge for myself what were edible varieties, not to worry. Before setting out, I was briefed on procedures for keeping suspected edibles separate from suspected toxic and possibly deadly mushrooms until group members with more expertise could make definitive identifications. Careful identification is a big part of the group activity.
For the communal picnic, I brought charcuterie and also made a far aux pommes, a breton dessert similar to a clafouti but with a custard full of apple pieces and spiked with calvados. First time I have made it, so was relieved that the reception was good.
Christine, a member of the group seated next to me at lunch, had also found a trove of yellow foots (feet?) and told me that she intended to cook them “a la creme”. This seemed a good idea to me as well, as these are a small, delicate mushroom that shrink down to almost zero when sauteed…good in a saute mix with other mushrooms but not by themselves.
The recipe is easy: clean the chanterelles, sauté the mushrooms gently in butter with a bit of sliced shallot and maybe some fresh herbs if you have them, say thyme or sage this time of year. When tender, deglaze with a little of white wine or brandy, then when it has reduced to dry, add cream or crème fraîche. Simmer gently for 10 minutes or so until he sauce coats the back of a spoon, season with salt, pepper and maybe a bit of fresh nutmeg and the sauce is ready. Easy!
I thought my mushroom sauce would be nice with fresh mackerel filets, quickly sauteed, and served with green cabbage and the local French potimarrons (these are shaped sort of like a kabocha but are bright orange) simply steamed, as the fish and sauce are already quite rich.