In the 21st century, living in France isn't really all that different from living in America. You can track down most of your favorite foods in the grocery stores here, McDonald's are ubiquitous, and American sitcoms grace the French channels every night. But there are a handful of French traditions that leave me simultaneously giggling and wondering how I can get involved when I hear about them; foraging for mushrooms is one of them.
Why shouldn't mushroom foraging be a culinary tradition? The health benefits of mushrooms are only just beginning to be explored in the West, but mushrooms are diverse in species and collectively delicious! I live in Paris; it's not a particularly great place to go looking for fungi, but as soon as mushrooms start to appear at my farmers market -- mini crimini, orange chanterelles and exotic black trumpets -- I know that the season for foraging has begun. In small French towns all over the countryside, people with know-how and a good wicker basket have already started the hunt.
What Do You Need?
Whether you're searching for mushrooms in the French Bois de Boulogne or in the woods in your backyard, you need a few items, the first of which is a good wicker basket. Mushrooms are delicate and quickly go bad when exposed to too much moisture; wicker allows them to breathe as you collect, and it's the perfect vessel to store them for a couple of hours on the kitchen counter before you cook with them. Whatever you do, don't put mushrooms in the fridge. I learned the hard way: being yelled at by a Frenchman who was personally offended by my lack of know-how.
Before you set out on your mushroom-hunting adventure, it's best to familiarize yourself with the mushrooms that are both edible and available in your area. The best way to do this is with an illustrated book of mushrooms, which will show you the different varieties and how to identify them. If you are a beginning mushroom forager, do not eat any mushroom that has not been vouched for by a professional... but we'll get to that part later.
From the Organic Authority Files
During the foraging stage of your mushrooming escapade, simply fill your basket with as many mushrooms as you can eat (try not to collect more than you'll consume in a day or two, as they go bad quickly). Which brings us to the next problem...
Where Should You Go?
A good truffle-forager will never give out his good spots, but mushrooms pop up pretty much everywhere and are quite plentiful, and a foraging veteran is far more likely to point you in the right direction. The best way to find out where edible mushrooms grow near you is to ask. The farmers market is a pretty good bet if you're looking for someone knowledgeable, and be sure not to throw out their number once you go looking. You'll need it to find out...
Which Mushrooms Are Poisonous?
This is definitely the most important aspect of responsible mushroom gathering. Even to the trained eye, many species of mushroom look alike, and it can be difficult to separate the edible from the non-edible. In France, pharmacists are trained in fungal identification, and during mushroom season, pharmacies all over Francce offer to go through your basket or paper bag of mushrooms to let you know which specimens are edible and which are not. In America, your local CVS isn't likely to provide this service. You're much better off talking a professional farmer at your farmers market. When in doubt, better safe than sorry: Don't eat any mushroom you're not 100% sure is safe.
What Should I Do with Them?
Anything you want! Mushrooms are used in a variety of dishes; their meaty flavor makes them the perfect main dish for vegetarians looking for heartier fare, but they're just as delicious in dishes with meat. With wild mushrooms, choose a recipe that makes them the star: a simple mushroom omelette is the perfect way to begin. Try our Mushroom Sauté with Toasted Walnuts or Braised Mushrooms with Herbs as a side dish at your next dinner party. Your guests will be all the more impressed when they hear you foraged for the mushrooms yourself!
image: Dave Bonta