Travel: Are Truffles Really Worth All The Fuss Made About Them?

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ROBERT BONNELL, OUR CORRESPONDENT IN FRANCE, SAYS YES

Editor’s Note: Truffles, those little knobs of fungus, have long been a prized ingredient in French and Italian cooking, and in recent years have begun to appear on more and more high-end American restaurant menus. Are they really worth their high price and do they live up to all the hype?  Robert Bonnell takes us on a visit to a winter truffle market in France, and explains what the fuss is all about. And yes, you read the above photo correctly, those lovely little buggers will cost you 700 € (about $1,000) a kilogram. Robert reports:

The black truffle, tuber melanosporum, is a devilishly expensive fungus which lives underground, associated with the root systems of oaks and several other trees. In France, truffles are harvested from late November until early March and are considered a great delicacy, their unique taste and aroma making them an exalted addition to a variety of dishes.

Commonly associated with the more southerly French regions of Périgord and Provence, black truffles are also found in the southern Loire Valley. Some are still found wild in the woods, but many come from plantations of truffle oaks, grown from seedlings whose roots were infused with truffle spores. But even in the plantations, a truffle hunter needs help to find them. Once performed by pigs, locating truffles is now the work of dogs. (As one purveyor of truffles says, it’s not easy to talk a pig into getting into the car.) At any rate, an effective truffle-hunting dog at work is a wonder to behold.

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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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