Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Let the fungi feast begin

by Sue Style

Some people say you need a dog to get you out walking. Not me. All I need is the promise of some fat fungi.

July is usually the month when the mushroom season opens here in Alsace, but this year, conditions have been especially promising: first, we've had spectuacularly steamy weather interspersed with spectacularly violent storms. The moon will soon be full, which always augurs well for the mushroom basket. Then, a couple of days ago my neighbour let drop the hint that it was certainly a good year for chanterelles. When my husband came back from the pharmacy muttering crossly that he'd had to wait ages while some fellow got his fungi checked out by the chemist, it was clear the season had opened.

Off I set into the forest, armed with my trusty mushrooming knife from the Design Museum in Weil, the star of my Christmas stocking. It comes beautifully to the hand and it's thoroughly practical, with a little brush at one end and a sharp blade at the other. The blade can be safely enclosed in a nifty little sheath so that if I take a header into the undergrowth, the chances of my committing (involuntary) hara-kiri are kept to a minimum.

I always wonder why it is that in Britain we're so suspicious of wild mushrooms. Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost the confidence - even the desire - to harvest wild foods. More than in any other European country, we've become creatures of the city. Land is intensively farmed and of the few forests that remain, most are privately owned, and thus off-limits to mushroomers.

Continental Europeans get a better deal of it. Though also increasingly urban animals, they've somehow retained their wild instincts, at least where mushrooms are concerned. Grazing pastures have been left relatively undisturbed and forests have been better preserved. And both pastures and forests, whether private or public property, are open to walkers and hopeful fungi-hunters alike. France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and – most especially – central European countries, all harbour plenty of practised fungi-foragers.

Numerous aids are provided in the form of illustrated pocket guidebooks, special knives (like mine) and baskets. In addition some of these countries offer mycological services, both formal and informal, to help fungi-hunters identify their finds. In France - as my husband found to his cost - you can take your promising-looking mushrooms to the pharmacy to have their credentials checked.

Switzerland has perfected the art of mushroom identification. This tiny country boasts a network of over 500 official Pilzkontrolleure (‘mushroom controllers’), all of them trained by VAPKO, the federal association responsible for fungi identification. At the end of their training, aspiring controllers face a terrifyingly rigorous exam. Within the space of 20 minutes, candidates must correctly identify 70 different fungi. They must also recognise all 12 of the most commonly encountered poisonous varieties. Once they’ve gone through all these hoops, controllers are permitted to offer their services under the auspices of the local parish council or Gemeinde. Their names are listed in the phone book, along with their ‘surgery’ hours. There is no charge to the consumer, though a battered old tin is usually on hand for tips.

It’s a terrific service and a real education in itself. Our local mushroom controller, Herr Peter Lang in Allschwil just across the border from here, is a mine of information. During the season, his surgeries are held in the village primary school. Propped up outside the door is a blackboard with a cheery looking mushroom chalked up on it, and a note of the opening hours. Standing in line are always lots of Italians, plenty of Swiss and some east Europeans (though not too many British). On the wall are displayed glorious technicolour pictures of the worst sorts of poisonous mushrooms with a note of how long it will take them to kill you, and a detailed description of how this will happen (so you can recognise the symptoms). There are also more reassuring illustrations of the best and most delicious kinds to be found in the area.

After my most recent foray, it was time to renew acquaintance and celebrate the opening of the season with Herr Lang. My basket contained sundry boletus, plenty of chanterelles and a couple of unidentified brilliant yellow specimens. In a separate container I had put a white one with a bulb-like end to its stem. I strongly suspected (even hoped, with a slight frisson) that it was an Amanita phalloides, the deadly Death Cap that will kill you at a hundred paces. Herr Lang briskly discarded the more luridly coloured boletus (‘46 different kinds in Switzerland!’, he reminded me), but gave a huge cep the thumbs-up and let the chanterelles through on the nod. The other yellow specimens, he said, were edible, but only the heads. The stalks were declared woody and unappetising and went in the bin.

Then he took his magnifying glass to the white one. I waited with bated breath. It came as a bit of a shock when he declared it to be an unusually delicious Speisepilz (edible mushroom) - an Amanita indeed, but one of the few virtuous members of that rather louche family that includes the fly agaric, the red and white spotted toadstool of fairy tale fame. ‘Most people don’t dare eat this one’, he admitted, ‘for fear of confusion with its poisonous look-alike.’ (We funked it too. I felt distinctly disloyal and waited till I got home to throw it away.)

Back over the border in Alsace, my neighbour was out in his veggie garden. I sauntered past with my spoils, observing nonchalantly that it seemed to be a good year not only for chanterelles, but for ceps too. He grinned conspiratorially. A mushrooming truce was tacitly declared. He didn't seem too impressed, however, when I announced my plan to make a little omelette aux cepes. ' Mais non, pas d'omelettes!', he cried, much better just to toss these treasures in a heavy pan with a generous glug of good olive oil, heaps of garlic with a final flurry of parsley and a parting shot of lemon juice. How right he was.

Copyright Sue Style 2005


Blogger Marc Millon said...

Wow, that's SOME mushroom, Sue. What a great start to the season. Happy hunting.

M x

August 04, 2005 9:43 am  
Blogger Susi said...

You make my mouth water!! Great article. I need to get out in our Virginia woods and look, too. You inspire me!

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