How to pick mushrooms safely in France: 4 secrets!
f you’ve never picked mushrooms, you are definitely missing out on one of life’s great pleasures! You probably think that’s an exaggeration, but you only have to look at the ecstatic expression on my Aussie friend’s face when she found her very first wild mushroom in the Loire Valley to see what I mean (pictured right).
Maybe it’s our scavenging instinct coming out, but searching for, finding and eating mushrooms create an incredible feeling of wellbeing and satisfaction. While you’ve got your mushroom eyes on, you don’t think of anything else. It’s wonderfully relaxing – particularly if you live in the city. And when you suddenly spot one, usually trying desperately to blend in with the vegetation, you feel exultant.
Most people are worried about picking poisonous mushrooms and they are perfectly right. You do have to know what you’re doing. There are, however, some basic rules to follow, and each mushroom has very distinctive signs that you learn to recognise.
First things first: mushroom safety
The first rule is that you should never pick mushrooms you’re not sure about and, even more importantly, if you do have any doubts after picking them, you must never add them to your basket or you could contaminate all the other mushrooms.
There is one family called boletus that are never poisonous. A few are diuretic and some are bitter, but they will never kill you. They are highly recognisable because they have a sort of spongey underside that is quite different from the gills we’re used to seeing in the shops. The best-known specimen is called porcini in Italy and cèpe in France.
Tools of the trade
Baskets are the only way to go when you pick mushrooms. Plastic bags not only damage the more fragile mushrooms, but can also cause fermentation, rendering the mushrooms inedible.
Any sharp knife is suitable but you can get a special mushroom knife with a curved blade and brush on the other end.
When to go?
Autumn is the best season to pick mushrooms but, in France, you can find various types of mushrooms any time between April and December. Last weekend we went foraging in the forest around Paris and found eleven different edible mushrooms.
Five were boletus, the most tasty of which are the cèpe de Bordeaux with its very thick stem and the little tête de nègre, followed by the pine boletus. We discarded the bitter boletus for obvious reasons and the bolet des charmes which isn’t worth the trouble.
Each mushroom has its own environment so you need to pick the right forest with the right trees. Also, there needs to be a certain amount of humidity. Rain, followed by sun, is perfect, because fresh mushrooms grow overnight.
In the kitchen
With the exception of the cèpe and tête de nègre varieties of boletus, you need to remove the pores from under the cap before cooking. This is somewhat long and tedius so it’s better to only select the varieties that are worth worrying about!
The common funnel caps – grisettes and amethysts – don’t have a very strong taste but are good for omelettes and veal stews. The grisettes are easy to confuse with other poisonous mushrooms, so you have to be able to identify them correctly.
We found the very fleshy, almost meat-tasting beefsteak fungus for the first time after some other mushroom pickers showed it to us. They cut one in two so we could see the distinct vein-like flesh.
We also came across a Grifola umbellata but since we weren’t able to identify it with any certainty, we left it there. We’ll know next time.
As you can see, mushrooms are complex and I’ve barely touched on the subject. If you’d like to know more, I suggest you click on the mushroom category on my blog.
Have you been mushroom hunting in France? Do you have other tips to pick mushrooms? Share your tips and experiences in the comments box below.All images © Rosemary Kneipp.