Mushrooms part 1: Fungus hunting in France

by Caroline Brown

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.

The French consume massive quantities of mushrooms. At harvest time–just before November frost–a frenzy of fungi foragers foray the French forests. (Sorry. I couldn’t stop myself.)

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.

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10 Comments to “Mushrooms part 1: Fungus hunting in France”

  1. Hi C, Are mushrooms considered vegetables or fungi or both? NOT vile….I thought you were starting to come around after my Mushroom Stroganoff post LOL!!!! Heh, I use to HATE sweet potatoes, now I just love them, it can happen. Looking forward to part two.

    Happy Thanksgiving, G 🙂

  2. Well, I wouldn’t risk death, but if someone else can guarantee they’re not the deadly kind, I like mushrooms….didn’t used to, sort of grew into it, now I love them both raw and cooked. One of my OR neighbors has a variety growing in his yard and he gave me a plateful one evening…wow, they were good! Wish I could remember what variety they were; not the ones you usually find in the grocery store.

  3. Good thing you’ve got a NICE neighbour Michelle!!! LOL And a smart guy in the mushroom dept. We had a neighbour many years ago who use to pick mushrooms anywhere he saw them, including on the lawn of the local library, toadstools we referred to them as (Heh C, whats the diff in the names??) now those, I would NOT have eaten!!!!

    Huggs, G

  4. Hee hee – I’m so excited you’re blogging about shroomies. I can’t imagine not liking mushrooms, but I have known people who feel as you do about them!

    Interestingly enough, I was just wondering last month how I might go about growing my own mushrooms since I’m not skilled enough with mushroom identification to wild harvest them for eating. All I know about mushroom growing is that I can always tell when I’m passing a mushroom farm by the unmistakable aroma!

  5. I can’t believe there are such things as mushroom farms. –shudder– >

  6. If you start a mushroom farm, can I come to visit JLB?? Ill even cook if you want me too. LOL….

    Mushroom farm, mmmmmmmmmm….. 😉

    I feel the same way about parsnips (shudder, shudder..) C, probably the ONLY veg I dont like.

  7. What? Hate mushrooms? I’m appalled!

    One clarification: Mushrooms aren’t plants at all. They belong to their very own kingdom, along with molds, mildews, yeasts (think beer, wine, bread) and stuff. It’s called, um, Fungi. Turns out that fungi are more closely related to animals (that’s us) than to plants.

    Since you already have mycophobia, you might as well read this near-death mushroom memoir. For the rest of you, please don’t try this at home:
    http://hosts.cce.cornell.edu/mushroom_blog/?p=68

  8. Hi Kathy. I can’t believe there’s a whole blog dedicated to mushrooms. I don’t know what to say. I am clearly outnumbered…….

  9. I have enjoyed your blog. Please take a look at mine about gardening

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