At last it has rained, bringing forth a feast of fungi in the woods and fields. This year has been a drought year in France as in the UK – and particularly in Dordogne, where we have had a ‘red alert’ on water use since early summer.
So a gastronomic surprise awaited us last week, when we were invited over for aperitifs chez Daniel and Marie-Claire, our neighbours. Daniel had found a basketful of beautiful coulemelles in his woods and was grilling them with onions after marinading in vinegar. Perfect with a glass of Pastis.
They were delicious and tasted surprisingly un-mushroomy. The taste is hard to define but made me think of a fresh autumn afternoon, the smell of leaf mould in the air and a wood fire crackling in the garden.
In north Périgord, where we are, ‘coulemelles’ are also called ‘filleuls’ (‘godchildren’) and ‘nez de chats’ (‘cats’ noses’ – because of the brown button in the middle of the cap). In English we know them as parasol mushrooms. Not being much of a forager back at home, apart from a few youthful forays to Leigh Woods for another kind of mushroom, I am not sure how big they grow in England. Here, they are huge – often 25 or 30 centimetres in diameter. As you can see in the photos, they are also beautiful to look at.
But today Daniel is over the moon as at last he has found ceps – and ‘winter ceps’ at that – a superior creature to their springtime cousins, he tells me. For the last three years there have been none, so this is a result. He picked 15 kilos of them yesterday and today and when I pop over the road he is busy preserving them in jars of vinegar as an aperitif treat.
I have dropped by to try and find out a few local secrets of the fungi. Four magnificent ceps are lying in a wooden tray, just picked on an afternoon walk through his woods. He tells me these are the best kind – ‘ceps du Périgord’, with black caps – and grow mainly in oak woodland. For this reason they are also known as ‘ceps de chêne’. Périgord, by the way, is the pre-French revolution name for an area that roughly corresponds with the département of Dordogne and is still in use today, particularly as it derives from the local dialect, Occitan.
When I ask him why there were no ceps for the past year few years I get a mixed response – ceps need just the right amount of sun and just the right amount of rain, he says, but also they must not get too cold at night, so the cold weather last November kept the fungi firmly underground.
Daniel said “c’est le temps qui guide tout” – it’s all down to the weather. We are sitting admiring these splendid ceps when Daniel says that of course, if they had grown for another day, they would have been two or three times the size. “Why didn’t you leave them until tomorrow then?”, comes the obvious question from me.
His answer intrigues and delights me: “Une fois que c’est vu, il profitera plus”, he says – or, to translate roughly – “a mushroom once seen is a has-been”. Then Daniel who, believe me, is a no-nonsense countryman, tells me that you have to pick a mushroom once you’ve seen it, because if you leave it, it will stop growing and will probably rot by the next day. This is because the mushroom knows it has been seen. He has seen it happen time and again, he says, and promises to prove it to me.
Daniel has over 12 acres, mostly woodland. Mushrooms being a bit of a precious commodity around here – some kinds can fetch 30 euros a kilo – he has put up signs saying “cueillette de champignons interdite” – “mushroom picking prohibited”, to stop greedy fungi hunters making off with his treasure and selling it on the local markets. He doesn’t mind a few being taken for home use, he says, but why should he pay the land taxes for others to reap the rewards?
I say that this sounds fair enough as I wave goodbye, clutching two delicious coulemelles for my tea…