Saturday, August 21, 2004
We are on holiday, at the moment, in the Dordogne. For the last week we have been staying in a gite not far from the town of Sarlat, a town which has grown rich on its trade in foie gras and truffles.
We are out in the countryside in a very quiet area of small farms perched on steep hillsides surrounded by woodland. Every morning this week there have been half a dozen cars parked up the lane, and the sound of people trampling through the woods. It didn't take long to realise they were looking for mushrooms.
Having watched this for several days now, and having some past experience ourselves of picking mushrooms, we thought we would take advantage of our proximity to the woods and go out early this morning and pick some mushrooms.
So we got a big basket and set the alarm clock for 6.30.
The next morning we were out, blundering around the woods by 7 am, at least half-an-hour before anyone else got there. To our surprise, there were quite a lot of mushrooms, and we picked everything we could see, particularly if it looked like a cepe.
Of course, other people turned up as well. They obviously saw us but clearly didn't want to meet us, so every so often we would sense someone creeping stealthily through the dense undergrowth twenty yards away. These regular mushroom collectors always have their own favourite spots that they don't like anyone else to find out about, so they generally disappeared out of view fairly quickly.
When we had a full basket, we popped it into the car and drove down to the town of St. Cyprien which is our nearest source of provisions. We had heard that Pharmacies in France were able to identify mushrooms for you and tell you which ones were safe to eat.
However, when we arrived, the young lady in the pharmacist looked qquite shocked. She peered into the basket and then went and got a book on mushrooms which she handed to us. I'm sorry, she said, you know as much as I do. When her colleague appeared from a back room, she looked aghast at our basket and simply said: "I'm not eating at your house".
We went back to the car, incredibly disappointed. As we stood there, looking at our basket of mushrooms, a tiny old lady of eighty or ninety hobbled past on a stick. She saw our basket and looked in. "You can't eat those" she said, and hobbled on.
Well, we weren;t going to be beaten that easily, so we tried another pharmacist along the road. This one was even worse. They didn;t even have an identification book, and the woman who looked at them seemed intent on destroying as many mushrooms as she could while rummaging through the basket wearing rubber disposable gloves. Even we know that you shouldn;t mix the different types of mushroom together. At least she seemed to have a bit of knowledge though. "This one's okay", she said, chucking it on top of a pile which she had just told us weren't okay.
We took them all home again and didn't dare eat a single one. It was very hot that day and by the evening the whole lot looked liked something the devil would have been delighted to serve his guests.