“We will have a bountiful mushroom recoult since our summer was hot and dry,” my neighbor prophesied. Oh, a mushroom hunt! Everyone quietly nodded. They silently confirmed what the oracle had divined as he sat on the stone bench in our town square. Like a meddling child playing double-agent in a spy film, I slyly ask to join join their outing. I’m met with the sound of silence.
I’ve been trying to crack this underground cult for years. Foraging, I am told, is the domain of an elite few.
Like members of the French Resistance, this ring of fungus maquisards refuse to divulge their secret picking place. Why such a big fuss? The main concern is the risk of source depletion they say. Although FREE for the forager, wild mushrooms are hard to propagate and expensive to buy. They only pop up in the woods during specific times of the year when conditions are just right. So, people keep mum.
And when it comes to protecting the location of the king: Boletus Edulisis, locals are especially vigilant. Commonly called the Cèpe de Bordeaux, some folks go to their grave without divulging their picking spot. But, I’m determined to find the famous Bolet. I ditch my neighbors and start digging.
I came up with an even better mushroom source. And, I don’t mind sharing.
Instead of trying to get into the resistance, opt for a nature club with an interest in mushrooms. What you really want is expertise. And the group I found has a professional mycologist. Going for a walk in the woods with him is like an easter-egg hunt for adults.
It’s reassuring to go ‘shrooming with Jean Claude Estatico. He’s a legend in our parts: teaching mycology at the Pharmaceutical school at the University of Lorraine, in Nancy, France. Like the French version of Euell Gibbons, Jean Claude chatters away revealing all types of edible forest food: wild carrots, beechnuts, flowers.
We walk along the forest road and as others inadvertently trample a collection tiny rose colored fungi, I reach down, feeling a bit sorry for the crushed species. Jean Claude catches my eye and winks. “You have just discovered some of the most sought-after mushrooms of all time,” he declares. Literally growing out of the dirt and water on the forest road. I quickly gather the lot.
When mushrooms are good, they are very good. Expensive too.
When I found my first Cèpe de Bordeaux, Jean Claude congratulated me and handed me a second one. “Right there, you have Boletus Edulisis, a treasure, 50-to-70 euros per kilo.” Why so expensive? They’re rare. Have a nice texture and match well with sauces, sides or meat. They taste like hazelnuts.
And, they are hard as hell to spot: I caught on by watching a kid.
He perks up, walks over to a pile of leaves — the whole forest floor is covered with a dense carpet of brown foliage. He dusts back the underbrush, and there it is: a plump, compact sepia colored mushroom that fits perfectly into the palm of his hand. A simultaneous cry of delight and astonishment ushers forth from the group — he had found yet another “King of Mushrooms.”
Now, I knew what clues to look for…
The kid admits: He forages with his grandfather (a member of the Resistance, perhaps?). Maybe I can get intel if I stick close by (since where and what to look for is traditionally passed down from grandparent to grandchild). I tell him he is lucky to have such an awesome grandpa. I am met with the kindest smile and genteel eyes ever known to mankind. My heart melts. He says, “Mushrooms are like deer. They come out of hiding in spring and fall.”
And this is when I realize that my search for the wild thing in the forest has lost its resistance and given way to something more gentle. A sense of community and belonging.
We’re all sharing our savoir-faire, but even more, we’re participating a moment in time. I looked around and listened to the sound of silence. This time, it was filled with reverence and bliss.
Want to join the club? Contact GACVIE, which hosts a yearly mushroom outing. The founder, Jean-Paul Marque is keen on environmental culture. His association, in collaboration with Bourlémont Fort, organizes an annual outing to discover mushrooms in France’s Saônelle Valley.
Too far away to join?
If you can remember seven trees and seven mushrooms, you will be on your way to finding what you want (and don’t want) to eat.
• Seven common trees and the mushrooms that typically grow around them:
• Seven deadly mushrooms:
• There are apps that can help, (but most of them want folks to prepay before they will tell you which mushroom you have).
Alice Verberne is a contributing writer for Dispatches Europe. She has worked in print journalism and magazine production in the United States and Europe throughout her career. She currently resides in France where she enjoys visiting former French speaking colonies and discussing history with the locals.