03 October, 2010

The emperor's choice.

Some days, there is just no sun to be seen. Autumn is advancing on cat's paws. The pyracantha/firethorn seems pleased, heavy with its burden of color and fruit (fit only for birds). The young liquidambar (sweetgum) I planted was the first to don red, a pop of verve in the wan day. And so yes, we all know there are elements of beauty present in every season, but these are perhaps a bit more valued just now for their fleeting nature. Also now, with varying degrees of subtlety and regularity, we're all off to the forests, to tease forth semi-hidden mycological treasure. Beauty of another breed. You can tell foraging is going on by the number of hastily abandoned cars alongside country roads here. I'm the rawest of novices at this business, but I go too, armed--with a basket, a penknife--and a person in the know.  Who could tell you, for instance, that the mushrooms below are definitely delicious black trumpets.
Mushroom hunting verges on the French cult activity of fall, even for the resolutely citified. If you do find someone willing to show you some of their favorite places, they are indeed fond of you; no one is exactly advertising the mushroom-laden spots...Luckily for newbies like myself, each and every pharmacist in France is trained to identify all the good, bad and the in-between of the mushroom world. So if you're even slightly uncertain, you simply head to any pharmacy for a (free) consult.Beyond the extraordinary truffle, in a league of its own, I've always reserved my biggest passion for cèpes, also known as porcini, and am far from the only person to feel this way in France. So I was rather surprised to find there's a rarer, fairer beauty held in even higher esteem in mushroom-mad France: the amanita caesarea. This mushroom isn't to be found in North America, though some call lookalike relatives such as Amanita hemibapha and Amanita jacksonii American Ceasar's Mushrooms. In France, the original amanite des césars, or l'oronge, maintains a near-mythic status, in part due to its relative rarity, in part its delectable taste. As implied by its name, the Roman emperors held it in the same esteem. Absent in the north of France, it tends to be found in the backcountry of the Mediterranean... where I live. And oh, is it ever a sight to see, emerging slightly, palely orange, out of a layer of beige forest detritus, not unlike a sunrise. Or maybe you manage to see an immature one: the white of the "egg", gleaming white in the undergrowth. If you cut open the egg, you see the yet "unborn" perfectly formed mushroom, waiting to burst out (this is why the Italians call it ovoli). Its exquisite, delicate flavor is so prized that, while recipes abound, aficionados recommend simply eating it raw with a bit of salt and olive oil. If it must be made into something, they recommend it sliced, raw, into salad. I'll admit I'm tempted by a briefly baked stuffed version, however. The amanita family is generally quite toxic (read: forager beware!). This particular amanita does distinguish itself from its hot-headed and deadly cousins: while the inside is white, the gills and trunk are outwardly clearly yellow. I don't think any of my images do its true beauty justice, and of course I forget to bring the camera while foraging...The finest image I have seen in situ is actually on Wikipedia.
Mushroom hunting is a win-win kind of activity: you may find no mushrooms, but you've still spent an hour or two foraging in a sweet-smelling forest--it doesn't get much more primal.

It seems the madness for mushrooms is catching. (Why did it take me so long to get on the fungus foraging bandwagon? Fear. Not trusting my own capacity to learn how to pick out the good from the dangerous. Those scary anecdotes of people who died, or nearly died, because they just had to eat this or that particular mushroom...Caution is good, but it is best when calibrated. Because there really is nothing quite like savoring something utterly wild, and wild-tasting, that you tracked down, all by yourself. Plus, in the case of mushrooms, there's no blood involved.)

For those of you who do dare, here's a German recipe for amanite des césars/keiserling from the 16th century (with thanks to Anahita):

Nim{b} Keiserling/ welche Schwäem{m} man gemeiniglich füer die aller besten helt/
wasch sie auss/ pfeffers vnd saltzs/
leg sie auff ein Rosst/ brat vnd begeuss sie mit Butter/
vnd gib es warm auff ein Tisch/
besträew es mit Pfeffer vnd mit Saltz/
so seind sie gut vnd wolgeschmack.

Take Keiserling/ which Mushrooms one generally holds [keeps] best of all/
wash them off/ pepper and salt [them]/
lay them on a Grill/ roast and baste them with Butter/
and give [i.e. serve] them warm on a Plate/
strew them with Pepper and with Salt/
thus are they good and well-tasting.


  1. That's totally cool that French pharmacists are trained to ID mushrooms. I fear American ones aren't nearly as adept. My parents forage for chantarelles and they're quite lovely.

  2. Fantastic!

    Michael Pollan writes about mushroom foraging in "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Very interesting and amusing. Have you read it yet?

    I love that French pharmacists know how to identify wild mushrooms. Yet another reason to love France.

  3. Ooh WC,
    Haven't found any of those yet, but they are delicious. Good for your parents. And yeah, I can just see myself walking into a Duane Reade or a Walmart Drug, mushroom in hand...hmm, maybe not.

    Hello Rose,
    The book's on my wishlist! What's really great is seeing how enthusiastically children take to mushroom gathering. And they actually pay attention to the "responsible and careful gathering" etiquette. Of course, they do have that height advantage.

  4. Yum! Those wild mushrooms are soooo good!

    As for the pharmacists, it's only the pharmacist him/herself who are trained to recognise fungi. Assistants are not, so if the pharmacist is not in, the assistant cannot help officially.

  5. Foraging for wild mushrooms is a national passtime. Like for grapes, terroir is important. In the Loire Valley, the porcini and chanterelles were delicious, not so much in Aveyron were my family now lives.
    (I have never tested l'oronge).

  6. Hi Sarah,
    Have you been foraging as well? What is common in your area? Good point about the assistants, as you don't always know.

    Hello Nadege,
    Nice to have you join in! Hope all has been well... In an ideal world, you can nab a last minute ticket to taste some delicious oronge yourself. You could get a break from the crazy heat of California...

  7. Hi Tiina,
    Thanks for stopping by! Yes, well, there may have been some grumbling when fall first came, but I'mreally enjoying it now. That gorgeous slant of the light...


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