Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Wild Mushroom Hunting in Southwestern France

A lot of my treks lately have been in and around Aquitaine in southwestern France. It’s an amazing region, from the wild areas of the Pyrenees to the wild Atlantic coastline, to the interior of limestone prehistoric caves and rock shelves, river valleys, medieval chapels and fortresses, and vineyards as far as the horizon.

It was an odd autumn here, as in so many other areas. Instead of a cooling and wet season, the days remained bone dry and warm.  Anticipation of the year’s wild hunt for porcini mushrooms, regionally known as cepes, was dashed. Many locals, mushroom experts for decades, told me that because there was no rain in September, there would be no cepes this year. Cepes crop up magically overnight when the rains come in September. I had asked if there was a chance that they’d appear in the forests if it rained in October or November. The answer was a somber no.

So imagine all our surprise when in mid-November, after some decent rains, older farmwomen began appearing in the weekly markets of the Dordogne with baskets laden with cepes. It created a buzz and people’s hearts lightened. The season was not lost and moreover, those delicious fungi were still willing to grow even though September had come and gone. We cheered for now egg omelets with cepes, mushroom tarts with cepes, and simply olive oil and garlic sautéed dishes with cepes were back on the menu.

I had the unexpected delight of going mushroom hunting twice with good friends. One day we went to the neighboring south central French region of Cantal, from where the famous Cantal cheese comes, and on another day we stayed more local in the forests of the Dordogne near Les Eyzies, the heart of prehistoric painted and engraved cave country.

The challenge of a later cepes crop was that by now the fall leaves had turned color, dried, and fallen off the trees onto the forest floor. To look for the telltale tan brown top hat of cepes meant a form of mental concentration and being present in the moment that modern humans are less practiced at compared to their prehistoric brethren. But being so near the latter’s homes in the rock shelves overhead inspired us. 

Both days, we found lots of mushrooms of all varieties. Many were poisonous and we had to be careful. But only cepes have the bulging stems that look like a person after Thanksgiving dinner. Those, we kept and took home and sautéed them in olive oil and garlic and tossed them with eggs and a hit of sea salt and sat to a meal with a crusty baguette, a green salad, and a medium bodied red Bergerac wine. It all tasted so much more vibrant for the day spent hunting and gathering out of doors. 

In moments like these, I feel more intensely that I am connecting to our ancestors who some 25,000 years ago lived in these forests, valleys, and rock faces and hunted and gathered for a living. It is moments like these that I also hope that I can take that level of concentration and mindfulness back into the modern world.