Yesterday, members of Atout Fruit went mushrooming. ‘ You couldn’t have!’, I hear you cry, as several people I mentioned it to did, ‘Autumn’s mushrooming time. On the whole’. Well, yes, up to a point. But our guide Francis, an organic farmer near Chalabre, keeps his family in mushrooms every single week of the year. He knows where to look.
And so he took a group of about 10 of us to the woods. Where? I’m not going to tell you that silly. Somewhere near Lavelanet. That’s all you need to know.
He told us some of the lore and laws surrounding mushrooming. That you can gather 5 kilos per person per day in the Aude, but only 3 kilos here in the Ariège . I wish. I’m ecstatic generally if I find as many as three mushrooms. That about 85% of land is in private ownership. That you may have the right to gather in the Fôret Communale of certain communes if you are resident there. That you must have written permission if a landowner gives you permission to go mushrooming on his land in case the police stop you as you carry your haul home. Theoretically, you could be stopped as you return from the shops with an extra-big bag of them.
Mushrooms in the woods, pushing steadily through the thick thatch of decaying leaves, are surprisingly hard to spot, clinging to the base of tree trunks, bulging through the crust of impacted dry foliage. We quickly divided into a hit squad of those who seemed to have an eye for it, and others, who like me, were destined to remain in the B team. Francis showed us edible girolles, gariguettes and russules, and warned against the attractive-but-not-to-be-eaten family of amanites.
We’d trot over to him with our finds, to be disappointed when he warned us against putting them in the pot, triumphant on those occasions when he said they were ‘delicieux’. We could guess after a while which ones were delicieux. The slugs and worms had got there first and eaten little circles out of them. No matter. Plenty left for us.
After a couple of hours, we wandered back to his mum’s kitchen (she’d lent her house for the afternoon), got out the textbooks, and discussed our finds. Not many mushrooms are dangerous, but unfortunately, they do tend to look rather like their edible cousins, and it only takes one……
The family takes its mushrooms seriously. The ones they can’t immediately eat are preserved in oil, or dried, and the surplus sold to discerning customers. We spend a happy time exchanging our favourite ways of preserving, drying and bottling all the fruits of the seasons – this sharing is always my favourite part of an Atout Fruit gathering.
Together, we disposed of a big pot of sautéed mushrooms, the juices sopped up with bread, and helped down with a glass of wine, before reluctantly setting off home, our baskets more or less filled with our afternoon finds. When I got home, Malcolm and Henri were drinking coffee. ‘Whaddya mean, you’re not telling where you got those mushrooms?’ Henri grumbled. ‘You’re a right proper Ariègoise you are’.