Travel: The Hunt For Amazing Wild Mushrooms In France’s Loire Valley

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Editor’s note: Learning how to forage wild mushrooms has long been on my to-do list, and somehow never seems to get done. It’s the sort of hunting which appeals to me, and what can be more local, natural, organic and delicious than wild mushrooms? Robert Bonnell, my friend and correspondent in France, recently went tramping through countryside in the Anjou region of France’s Loire Valley with experienced mushroom hunter, Henri de Fontanges. Here, in words and photos, is what he found:

Hunting wild mushrooms is a passion in France, and the location of a favorite mushroom hunting ground is a closely guarded secret.  Best if it’s not on private property, to avoid the risk of having your harvest confiscated or stomped on by an abuse-hurling property owner (something the author once witnessed in Brittany).

It is said that all French pharmacists are trained to tell the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms, but this is scoffed at by many. Therefore to avoid being poisoned, the French often stick to gathering certain safe, easy to recognize genera – chanterelles, morels (which are safe when cooked) and cêpes (pronounced “sep”), above all the cêpe de Bordeaux, or Boletus edulis, what English speakers usually call the porcini mushroom.

Cêpes get fairly large, with a thick stipe (stem) up to 5 inches high and a cap up to 10 inches across. They have a short growing season in the fall during warm periods after a rain. One recognizable difference from most other mushrooms is that they don’t have gills under the cap – instead they have a spongy area there with tubes through which the spores are released. This makes identification much easier, but the mushroom hunter is not out of the woods (so to speak) yet, since there’s a cêpe relative, Boletus satanas, which can deliver a nasty stomach-ache. Luckily it’s red and bleeds blue when cut, so identification is not difficult.

Even considering their large size, cêpes can be difficult to see, since they’re close in color to the dead grass, tree trunks and plant litter of the forested areas in which they grow. When you finally do spot one, and then another and another, in a spot you’ve searched without success several times already, it can be a very satisfying experience. It’s like one of those pictures which first appears to consist only of a meaningless array of dots, and then suddenly you look at it just right and a 3-D image jumps out at you.

This year has been relatively dry in Anjou, in the western Loire River valley, so the cêpes are not appearing in the great numbers they do some years.  There are also a lot of rival mushroom hunters tramping around the woods.  And that’s not the only competition for the cêpes – beetles burrow right in, and slugs love them.  And, while we may eat snails here, slugs are definitely not considered a delicacy. It’s a rare cêpe which hasn’t had at least one hunk bitten out of it.  So we were delighted when Henri de Fontanges, the experienced mushroom hunter who had brought us to this spot, brushed some dead leaves aside and found the double cêpe de Bordeaux shown in the photo.  It was nearly perfect.  Weighing in at 750 grams (1 lb. 10 oz.), it could have fetched the equivalent of $25 at a local market.  Instead it will serve as part of the delicious topping for a homemade pizza.

When this prize was added to basket already holding several handfuls of chanterelles and a couple of hedgehog mushrooms, it wasn’t a bad haul for an afternoon’s stroll in the woods. (More photos after the jump…)

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Robert Bonnell will be publishing an eBook in early 2012 reviewing the off-the-beaten-path cave restaurants, hotels, artisans’ workshops, museums, etc. of France’s Loire Valley.

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Camouflaged cepe.

Henri de Fontanges, experienced mushroom forager, led the hunt.

Hedgehog mushrooms.

Hunting mushrooms: part of the find.

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2 responses

  1. A very interesting article, I was compelled to answer from the mushroom artical that was talked about in your blog. Henry’s views on the origin of the cêpe de Bordeaux, mushroom was so interesting that I was looking forward to a delicious mushroom recipes. Maybe next time…

  2. Great article ~ lovely photos ~ thank you Henry!

    Please Read This Warning ! ! !

    A friend in Il. picked and ate mushrooms for 20 years and accidentally picked a poisonous mushroom, and ended up almost dying as 90% of her liver was destroyed. She had to be air-flown to different hospitals as they tried to save her life. She did live!

    So~ beware of what you pick and know that poisonous and non-poisonous mushrooms of the same variety. can grow side by side, which is what she accidentally gathered.

    In England, pharmacists I’ve heard use a solution to test each mushroom brought in by the community of gatherers.
    Any one know if this is true because if so, USA , should have their pharm techs in every town, be educated in this testing protocol.!!!

    My friend was cooking dinner for her family of 7 and made a large pot of mushroom sauce to go over noodles, Luckily she sampled it first while cooking and immediately fell ill or all 7 family members would have been victims too.

    We are on the Moon !!! and yet we can’t be 100% sure of the safety status of a mushroom?

    Good idea for an invention anyone out there reading this . . .

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