A Walk Amongst the Mushrooms

There is a fine mist of rain drifting across the meadow. The weak autumn sun is low in the sky, sending long-shadowed fingers from the trees on the ridge to the ruined farm buildings tumbled in the field. It is cold. My toes and fingers are numb, moisture beads in my beard and eyebrows, and my breath forms clouds of silver and silk that drift behind me as I walk. The grass of the meadow is a deep lush green, recently recovered from the long drought of a summer that had turned the countryside to dust. It took only a few days of rain to bring the fields back from desert yellow to emerald green, the miracle of nature resurrecting herself against seemingly impossible odds. I am picking mushrooms with a feverish delight, with that gold-rush feeling of a wild food enthusiast presented with a bounteous crop. Especially one as unexpected as this.

Wild mushroom

I had grumbled my way through much of late summer. As an Englishman in only my second full year in France, the long days of 40°C were hard. Because it was too hot for me to work outside except in the early morning and late afternoon, things on our smallholding farm got away from me. Broken fencing went un-mended, garden weeding seemed a Sisyphean task, the clump of stinging nettles in the sheep field grew, unchecked, into a monstrous thing. I was a patchwork of furious mosquito bites and sunburn. As a consolation, the vegetable plot, watered twice daily, did wonderfully, as the aubergines, tomatoes, sweet peppers, and chilis thrived in the heat. The hedgerows began to thicken with hawthorn berries and rose hips, although the hoped-for blackberries were tiny, hard, desiccated things.

September came around, then November, and still no rain. The local farmers began to feed their cattle — those beautiful white Charolais that roam the landscape here — with the hay they had put by for winter. The price of cattle feed rose. The price of beef fell. Whole swaths of Europe were drier than in decades and national emergencies were declared. The seasons were all out of sync, and although, as in the previous year, I ventured to the forest in the hope of a good harvest of fungi to boost my winter stores, all was dry and lifeless. The woodland floor was bare where last year a great green carpet of moss had been studded by jewels of ceps and their ilk. I crunched across dead, dry areas of bracken and ferns, searching fruitlessly. Even the river that winds it way through pines and twisted oaks at the valley floor was dry, a rubble-strewn road.

Each successive trip to the woods, and each successive empty-handed return, added to the growing sense that there would be no fungi for our winter pantry. This was not good news. Last year I had managed to supplement our meagre winter diet with a decent amount of bolete mushrooms, dried and stored in airtight jars. The addition of a few ceps to a dish can pep up the dullest of dinners and add valuable nutrients at a time of year when they can be scarce. This year it looked like we might have to go without. The thought of that hungry gap between running out of stored vegetables and the start of a new growing season loomed large, made all the more hungry by the prospect of a mushroom-less winter.

Landscape at dawn

My interest, perhaps obsession, in mushrooms began years ago, as a chef in England. I started my career in the late 1990s, when the concept of wild mushrooms in Britain was loose, to say the least. The food scene was not as it is today, when chefs in all varieties of venues use properly wild ingredients in their dishes (although not necessarily to good effect). Whereas our European neighbors in France, Italy, Poland, and elsewhere had never lost their love of foraging, in the UK the practice was limited to blackberries and wild garlic. An inherent suspicion of mushrooms and toadstools and wild things made wild food a niche practiced by a few who remembered the old ways. Those so-called wild mushrooms I would sauté for tagliatelle or use to sauce a steak actually came from plastic punnets: cultivated oyster mushrooms, cultivated king oysters (essentially the same thing), cultivated enoki (an inferior version of a wild fungus called velvet shank), and various and diverse sizes and forms of the common button mushroom. In short: not wild, and fairly bland and homogenous in flavour, but which I accepted as “wild” as I sweated and stirred and tossed pans over a gas flame in the kitchens of my youth. More expensive restaurants might offer morels or chanterelles, although these would invariably be imported, dried, from Europe. And although occasionally a hunter or a fisher would appear at our kitchen door with their quarry in the hope of selling it to the restaurant or swapping it for dinner, no one ever turned up with a basket of wild ceps or St. George’s.

Fast forward a few years, and up popped a British television show called A Cook on the Wild Side. The action followed a young mop-haired chap named Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as he traveled the open countryside of England, eating rooks and weeds and wild mushrooms and generally being odd. I was captivated by this side of the rural landscape that I had grown up in. Although I’d been raised knowing about husbanding animals and growing fruit and veg, wild foods were new to me, and I was stunned at the seemingly infinite variety of the ingredients in the larder of the land.

Winter chanterelle mushrooms

So, armed with a couple of books and a sturdy set of boots, I ventured out into the fields and forests surrounding the city where I lived, determined to learn and experience as much as I could. What started as a casual interest swiftly became a way of life. On my days off from work I could be found tramping the countryside in my quest for the next mushrooms on my list, wild fungi that were said to be prized for their flavours. Chanterelles, ceps, St. George’s — one by one I ticked them off my list. I was astounded by their flavours and textures and colours. These mushrooms were nothing like the pallid things I had cooked in my early career.

As my own knowledge progressed so, coincidentally, did that of the broader food world. Gradually, UK pubs and restaurants began to offer wild mushrooms that were actually wild, as well as other foraged ingredients, like three-corner leeks or alexanders. And although foraging has not quite become mainstream, the UK is now a little closer to Europe than it once was — in this way, at least, if not in others.

Over time my love of mushrooms progressed from the merely culinary to the mycological. The more I learned of these astonishing forms of life, the more I wanted to know. Hooked by their flavour, I was now drawn in further by tales of the carnivorous oyster mushrooms, of the fungal network used by trees to communicate with each other, of a honey fungus that is the largest living thing on planet Earth. The uses for fungi go far beyond the kitchen table to medicines, alternatives to plastic, building materials, ways to clean oil spills, even hats and shoes, all fashioned from the boundless adaptability and diverse properties of the kingdom of the fungi. Endlessly fascinating, the mushroom has somewhat taken over my life — a life that would literally not exist if it weren’t for fungi, so integral are they to all life of Earth.

The author picking field mushrooms

By the end of this dry summer, it seemed the world of fungi had managed to wrong-foot me. But my sage (and possibly dull) talk in anticipation of a terrible mushroom season proved unfounded. As soon as the rain took hold, the still-warm days of mid-November hosted a truly astounding flush of field mushrooms, which popped up so quickly I could almost hear them.

The meadows surrounding our place are all ancient grassland. Neither sprayed nor tilled for generations, they are host to myriad grass species and are rich in clover, sorrel, poppies — all the wild flowers of spring and summer. The hedgerows are broken at regular intervals by oak trees, hundreds of them at least a century old. All of this supports, and is supported by, a vast network of mycelium, the main part of most fungi that remains hidden below ground or within the wood of their hosts.

At first just a few mushrooms cropped up: an occasional field mushroom, a couple of parasols, and some of the ever-present, hard-to-identify little brown toadstools. But then, one morning, I looked out from my window over a field dotted as far as my eye could see with rings and lines of the white domes of field mushrooms. Called rosé mushrooms here in France due to the pink gills of younger specimens, they look similar to the related cultivated mushrooms available in the supermarkets, but their flavour is a world away: earthy and savory with just a hint of citrus on the back of the tongue. They are a delight to cook fresh and, as with most mushrooms, take pleasure in a bath of sizzling butter and garlic. They also dry well, which is my preferred way of preserving mushrooms. Desiccated in my dehydrator, they can be stored for at least a year (a low oven with the door open will also do the trick, as will a wood stove or even a radiator). Plus, the act of drying intensifies the flavour of many fungi. Ceps and their bolete brethren are the best examples of this, their dusky flavour amplified to a funky umami that brings liveliness to soups, stews, and grilled meats. The flavour of field mushrooms also benefits from being dried in this way, although does not have the hint of luxury that their woodland cousins bring to the table.

Prepping mushrooms for storage

So there I was at last, nearly feverish as I hopped across the meadow from spot to spot, watched from afar by confused and skittish deer. I teased mushrooms from the ground, checking them over to be sure of their identity as I went. I filled a basket within half an hour, pausing now and then in the raw autumn air to try and rub some sensation back into my stiffened fingers. Three days in a row I was out, basket in hand. Three days in a row I filled that basket and returned to my kitchen and the laborious job of cleaning and slicing my treasured finds. Winter will be easier now, with some 15 kilograms of mushrooms dried and stored. It will certainly be more affordable to feed ourselves well, and our diet will be richer, healthier, and more interesting.

Yet still the fields around me are full of mushrooms, fruiting and scattering their spores into the air. It is a sight to behold, beautiful and a little alien and a happy reminder that much of the natural world does its thing hidden from human eyes; the displays that we see of birds and of plants and of animals are just a portion of the performance that goes on above us, below us, and all around us. Even inside us.

As the season wanes and the true cold of winter encroaches, I’ll continue to wander the woods and the dales, picking wild winter greens and late-hanging hedgerow fruit. But my heart is with the mushroom in all its wonderful forms, and I find it hard to resist wishing the year away until I can once again walk amongst their weirdness, and fill my grateful belly and my pantry for another winter.

 

Kieran Jefferson is a cook, writer, forager, sheep wrangler, chicken whisperer, and beekeeper. After twenty years as chef in busy restaurant kitchens, he moved with his partner to the countryside of Burgundy, France, and is now in the process of making their smallholding as self-sufficient as possible, growing vegetables and fruits, foraging for wild foods, raising animals for eggs and meat, and keeping bees. He is a member of the Association of Foragers, a partner in the off-grid catering company Forage and Fire, and contributing editor of Locavore Magazine. Find him online at KieranJefferson.com or follow him on Twitter @lidson.

Author’s note: Wild fungi and plants provide a wonderful bounty of ingredients. It is also true that both kingdoms contain species that are extremely toxic, causing poisoning and even death. Mindful and sustainable harvesting of wild foods is paramount, as they are integral parts of precious and sensitive ecosystems. If you’re keen to try foraging, get some expert advice, take a course, read as much as you can, and never eat anything unless you are one-hundred-percent sure of its identity.