France — Claude Villiere, wicker basket in hand, set out into the dense
woods beyond this sleepy village to hunt his prey: cèpes, better known in the
United States by their Italian name, porcini mushrooms.
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He is one in an army of part-time foragers who fan out through the country’s forests until the frosts of November, filling markets across France with humid mounds of chunky white pieds de mouton, or sheep’s feet; golden girolles; black trumpets of death; and cèpes, the beefy brown toadstools that are the royalty of wild mushrooms.
It is a remarkable feat, given the quantities of autumnal fricassees, mushroom-spiked omelets and fungus-flavored sauces that the French consume, using hundreds of tons of wild mushrooms a year. Every bite leads back to a walk in the forest.
The epicurean adventure is not without its dangers. Last month, the French health authorities warned mushroom enthusiasts yet again that they should be absolutely sure of what they eat after a dozen people were hospitalized — three in intensive care — with mushroom poisoning over the course of just two weeks in western France.
Every now and then, someone succumbs. Two elderly brothers died near Bordeaux two years ago after eating deadly “death caps,” or Amanita phalloide, which account for most mushroom fatalities. They apparently mistook the pale gray fungus for “agaric des bois,” known in the United States as wood mushrooms.
There is even a lingering danger that some mushrooms could be tainted with cesium-137, which settled like snow over parts of Europe after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Mushrooms absorb and concentrate heavy metals or radioactive isotopes found in contaminated soil.
Mr. Villiere, 53, dismisses those concerns and insists that it is hard to mistake the most delectable fungi from toxic varieties. But following him through the woods proves otherwise. A novice accompanying him on a recent trip repeatedly picked what looked like cèpes only to be told they were “Satan’s boletes,” which “would give you a good purge” if eaten, Mr. Villiere said. He sliced open each specimen, and the white flesh quickly turned a telltale inky blue.
Doubting foragers can take their fungi to any French drugstore for an expert opinion because all pharmacists here are trained mycologists. In rural areas, they regularly sort through baskets of mushrooms, picking out the toxic ones.
“Agaric jaunissant gives us the most trouble,” said Catherin Leconte, the pharmacist in Chantraine, pointing to a picture of Agaricus xanthoderma, the poisonous mushroom’s Latin name. She said that people confuse the fungus, known in America as a “yellow stainer” because its white flesh turns yellow when bruised, with the tasty Agaricus campestris, known in the United States as the field mushroom or the meadow mushroom.
Mr. Villiere says he learned everything he needed to know from his mother, which is how most French foragers learn. “I have never had a problem,” he said. “But I only eat what I pick myself.”
Some foragers go out before dawn with miner’s lamps on their foreheads because mushrooms — especially cèpes — shine in the light. But Mr. Villiere prefers the daytime, and spends a few early hours each morning alone, hunting for champignons sylvestre.
He keeps enough to eat and sells the rest to a local depot, where they are sorted by size and sent by truck through the night to Rungis, the sprawling, fresh-produce clearinghouse outside of Paris.
Local laws limit mushroom hunters from gathering more than a few quarts a day, and fungus wardens patrol some of France’s most popular foraging spots. One person in southern France’s Cévennes National Park was recently fined for having picked 150 quarts of mushrooms in a day.
But mushroom hunting is, by nature, a clandestine affair and the rules are regularly broken.
“We all have secret places,” Mr. Villiere said. “If you see someone, you don’t go directly to your best spot. You walk around until they’re gone.”
There is usually one big growth in June and another in September, and everyone knows that cèpes will “push” a week or so after a soaking rain. At those times, the woods quickly fill with foragers creeping quietly among the trees like deer.
There are hundreds of wild mushroom varieties, but only a dozen or so that are commonly eaten and just a handful that are collected for commercial sale. Mr. Villiere paused to pluck a reddish-brown fungus from the shadows of the forest floor.
“Ah, a gourmelle rose, this is the most beautiful one,” Mr. Villiere said, peeling back the cap’s skin to reveal a whitish meat beneath. “It’s very fine, better than cèpes. This melts in your mouth.”
[I googled that name and found girolle to be a local name for Amanita rubescens, the blusher. I collected and ate it several times this summer in Germany, Austria and Italy and would never rate it above Boletus edulis, Daniel Winkler]
His favorite fungus, he said, is the “gris de sapin,” which comes only with the first frost, when the other mushrooms die.
[gris de sapin should be Clitocybe (Lepista) nebularis, a close relative of the blewit]
With his basket nearly full, Mr. Villiere returned to his car and drove to the home of Daniel Vujeic, 50, who runs a network of depots that buy mushrooms from foragers across the Vosges region. The foragers are responsible for cleaning the mushrooms. Mr. Vujeic’s 18 depots deliver the goods to him in the early evening and he and a handful of workers sort them by size and ship them to Paris the same night. His trucks arrive in Rungis at around 4 a.m. Within hours, the mushrooms are sold to buyers for markets and restaurants across northern France. By nightfall, many will be gracing a plate.
Mr. Vujeic, the son of a woodcutter who grew up picking girolles while his father was working, says he moves about 150 tons a month during the June to November season, though the quantity doubles when the mushrooms are pushing. Prices fluctuate wildly, but cèpes in some areas at certain times retail for more than $25 a pound.
Still, pollution and an increasing number of mushroom hunters have taken their toll on France’s mushrooms. Most girolles, the first mushrooms to be commercialized half a century ago, now come from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine.
“They are beautiful, and they are cheaper,” sighed Mr. Vujeic.
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