If you’ve been enticed across the Channel by the prospect of living a rural idyll, picking wild mushrooms in France will probably be high on your list of activities . Literally hundreds of varieties of cèpes grow in the forests and fields. Here are ten tips which I hope will help to make it a rewarding experience.
1. The exact quantity of mushrooms you’re legally allowed to pick depends on the region but is usually limited to around two kilos per day. Recently there have been problems with some East Europeans who actually camp in the forests, remove commercial quantities, literally pillaging certain parts. As a result, mushroom picking in certain areas has now been restricted to the locals. Be aware that officers of the ONF (Office national des forêts) are now on the prowl, and offenders could find themselves facing a maximum fine of 750 euros. So play the game and only pick for your personal consumption.
3. That forest you go picking wild mushrooms in is probably vast (some forests in France are more than 300 square kilometres in area), so don’t get too carried away. If you stray too far from the beaten track you could lose your sense of orientation and find yourself hopelessly lost. So don’t forget your mobile so you can call the police.
4. Some wild mushrooms and fungi are poisonous, and the visual difference between edible or not can be minimal. Eating the wrong ‘uns can cause great discomfort, even death (each year approximately 30 people never live to pick again) – so choose only those you know. If in doubt get your local pharmacist to give it the once over. As part of his studies he’s been trained to identify the dangerous ones. But it’s probably even better to ask a local.
5. Like many things in France picking wild mushrooms is subject to a myriad of rules and regulations as to how, when and where. For more detailed information consult your local mairie. The most important rules are that they can only be picked when a certain size, and you’ve got to cut (and never uproot) the stalk at the bottom using a knife only. And you’re also supposed to carry them in a wicker basket so that the spores can fall out. This helps propagation.
6. You might think that the most dangerous part of picking wild mushrooms in France is the risk of eating a poisonous one. This is not necessarily the case. Always remember that in the Autumn months you’ll be sharing the forest with hunters – so you could be mistaken for a deer or a wild pig. The French chasseur is short-sighted enough (or such a bad shot) to be the cause of around 170 accidents per year – more than a score of which are fatal, and three score of which are considered extremely serious. Roughly 20 of these accidents involve non-hunters while the remaining 150 stay in the family. So be wary when you venture into the forest – even if it’s just for a post-prandial stroll. It might be a good idea to wear a fluorescent jacket.
7. If you live more in the south you might be tempted to go looking for the distinctive honeycombed and uniquely-flavoured morille (morel) mushroom. They’re expensive to buy in shops (350 euros a kilo), and prized by gourmet cooks, many of whom consider them equal to truffles. Don’t go after them in Autumn, though, for the simple reason that they only grow at the beginning of Spring. They pop up mainly in forests when the snow begins to melt. They tend to grow around pine trees in the mountains, and near elm and ash elsewhere. And they often hide among dead leaves. It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack but don’t get discouraged. You’ll gradually acquire a sixth sense and it’ll all be worth it.
8. You can dry them by piercing the stalk with a needle and thread and hanging them upside down in a dry room.
9. Don’t expect even your French pals to tell you where the best morille spots are. They’re jealously guarded secrets. One of my friends finds hundreds every year but the only information I’ve been able to drag out of him as to their whereabouts is ‘South from here.’ In the Jura where I live the best spots are only passed on from father (usually on his deathbed) to son.
10. Uncooked wild mushrooms freeze badly but dry well, and can be stored in airtight containers. However, they’re best consumed the day they’re picked. Don’t put them in a plastic bag as this will cause them to sweat.