I intensely dislike mushrooms. Hate them, actually. But I realize I’m in the minority, and am finally caving to outside pressure to blog about this vile vegetable. Since I do enjoy food journalism, I thought I’d share some highlights from a well-written story in Thursday’s New York Times on French mushroom hunters.
And in my next post, I’ll discuss how to actually cultivate mushrooms yourself. Although why anyone would want to do so is beyond me. (This is for you, Geraldine….)
Mushrooms are plants without chlorophyll. The stem (or shaft) and cap are actually the above- ground fruiting bodies of a fungus (mmm-mmm.) According to Wikipedia, the main types of mushrooms are agarics, boletes, chanterelles, tooth fungi, polypores, puffballs, jelly fungi, coral fungi, bracket fungi, stinkhorns, and cup fungi. A kind of mushroom called sac fungi includes morels and truffles.
CHANTRAINE, 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.
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.
Of course there’s a down side to being a mushroom hunter/eater–if you misjudge the mushroom you could end up in the hospital with a terrible case of, well, death.
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.
Needless to say, mushroom picking is not recommended for those without considerable experience. The French, however, are undeterred:
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.
He can have them! Personally I can’t imagine why anyone would risk death to eat a fungus. Give me a good old fashioned cherry tomato any day.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.