There was a rather smart Renault saloon half parked in the ditch that fed our woodland pond. I gave it a desultory glance and thought no more – until I went to my favourite champignon spot, under the great oak, above the pond. Neatly aligned were several stalks that had been severed by a sharp knife. The rough roadside gate made of sheep fencing stapled to chestnut stakes had been carelessly left open. I was so angry that I immediately bought chain and padlock to make entry impossible. I had gone native and he was a thief.
'Champignons' are considered as the noblest of fungi, the bolets or ceps, over which fist fights, verbal disputes and much boasting occurs. Indeed, as I was walking in the fields with a grass expert last Thursday, he confided that he had been able to collect 40 kilos of ceps in the past few weeks. Experience in this kind of conversation, I assumed he was using the term 'forty' in the ancient Persian or Biblical sense, not as a definite number, just a general term for 'lots'. He was probably a thief, too.
Most of French woodland is private or state property, yet the harvesting of wild mushrooms is still thought of as a right – which it is not. Picking wild mushrooms on land other than your own is theft under French law. Hence all those boards stating variations on 'champignons interdit' or the more severe 'propriété privé, cueillete de champignons interdite'. Some woodland owners have even come round to selling a permit to their local neighbours, so that they can legally pick mushrooms. But, as own disabused owner observed, as soon as you issue a permit, the world knows there are champignons.
The cep season this year started quietly. There were not the usual, near suicidal, plastic bag armed, elderly walkers along the roadsides, poking at ditches with their sticks and totally unaware of cars, lorries and vans going by at over 90kms an hour at breakfast, lunch and dinner times. Nor were there any cars half parked in roadside ditches, or lurking behind trees on woodland entry paths whose trees sported champignons interdit signs. Mind you, it seemed to me that more than usual of these paths had been blocked by strategic, recumbent tree trunks, chains or generally car unfriendly obstacles such as large stones.
Since mid August champignons have appeared with what non cep lovers might call monotonous regularity, probably due to the erratic summer weather. Until very recently daily temperatures had difficulty reaching over the mid twenties centigrade and every attempt at fine weather was spoilt by mild rainfall. Ideal for cep production, local people muttered darkly, the soil would ferment with the warmth and the damp and the cep would show its head. As it did, every third day. You had to get there before the slugs did – not that easy.
There is something magical about finding ceps. You wander along the edge of the woodland, venture into clearings, carefully disturbing layers of oak and chestnut leaves, then suddenly there arises a a firm, dark cap, perhaps two or three. With any luck the long brown slugs have not yet found them, the caps are undamaged and, if that is true, they are likely to be very young, the sponge like tubes under the cap are still white and firm. They look and smell most appetising unlike the decaying, yellow-brown ones offered commercially. You can almost persuade yourself there is a skill to cep hunting, too. You look to see where the sunlight pierces through the trees, where it hits a damp patch of decaying leaves...and then you are proved wrong by finding them on a stony bank above a dry stream.
There are many ways of eating ceps, many ways of conserving them for eating later. Locally, in the Dordogne, they are sliced finely, fried and mixed in with coarsely hashed boiled potatoes, parsley and garlic (the delicate recipe) or very deeply fried and added to potatoes fried in duck or goose fat with parsley and garlic (a more calorific version) often known as 'pommes Salardaises'. To complete the calorific value of the dish, it usually accompanies confit - hot preserved fat goose or duck leg – both birds, foie gras producers, having previously been conserved in their own fat. In theory, the goose or duck meat loses the fat in which it was preserved as it is re-heated.
. The other classic presentation of the cep is in an omelette, again fried with parsley and garlic. Recently I tried combining the two ideas. My potatoes were sliced, boiled and used to line an oiled dish (a quiche form) and kept warm under the grill. The egg, parsley,garlic and cep mixture when partly cooked, was placed on top and briefly placed under the grill. It was certainly filling but had less of the 'fried' taste of the other recipes.
There is an argument about how to prepare ceps before use. Old fashioned persons will blanch the cleaned and sliced ceps in vinegar water, then dry before frying. Modern Perigord housewives, who do not have so much time at their disposal, simply clean, slice and fry them. Having tried the blanching method, I have decided in favour of simple frying; blanching seems to confer a rubbery consistency on the cep which makes it rather disagreable to eat. Perhaps that was what put me off when I first ate them in restaurants.
As always with mushrooms, there are many old wives' sayings and beliefs. In the Dordogne it is darkly opined that once a champignon has been seen by the human eye, it will grow no larger. Well, obviously not, for what the human eye sees, human fingers will pick.