Foraging in French markets is a wonderfully engaging experience for all the senses – the constant frenetic hum from market goers and stall owners; the vivid colours of fresh local vegetables; the olfactory assault from ripe oozing cheeses and pungent mold encrusted salamis; and constant sampling and snacking from stall to stall to keep both mouth and tummy rumbling at bay. After our fresh cep find at the markets in Sarlat, I thought I was perfectly satisfied but a lazy afternoon walk upped the ante to a whole new echelon. My spidey sense tingled as I spotted something in my peripheral vision and I grabbed the Co-pilot’s arm and pointed frantically – mushrooms!
These specimens were older and very much worm-munched specimens – I didn’t bother trying to identify these but I think were Boletus frostii or Boletus erythropus – a red-pored mushroom that’s not edible (possibly poisonous) but one I always find so fascinating for its amazing colour changing properties. Upon bruising, the red pores under the cap and the pale yellowy flesh of the cap and stem instantly turn a deep blue.
The Co-pilot watched on first with amusement then as time went on, probably a bit of concern about the mental maturity of his wife as he watched me prod the mushroom repeatedly.
As we turned to go I spotted something even more exciting: white, domed with shaggy caps – Coprinus comatus, or the aptly named shaggy manes or lawyer’s wig. An older specimen sat nearby, the young domed cap having opened into a more conventional convex shape but the once pristine white colour seemed to be rapidly decaying into a black viscous inky liquid. This process is called “deliquesing” and is the chosen route that this mushroom chooses to disseminate its spores as opposed to the way gilled and pored mushrooms drop spores or how puffball fungi eject their spores into the air. I’ve read that the resulting spore laden inky mess was actually used as an ink by George Washington!
Having pored over mushroom books so much, I found these mushrooms pretty easy to identify and some of the main gross features include:
- young specimens are elongated and egg shaped
- more mature specimens have broadly conical caps
- the caps have a shaggy or scaly surface which can be sticky
- the cap dissolves/deliquesces and changes from white to pink to black
- the gills are free and extremely crowded
- the stem base is bulbous
- it has a stem ring
- the stem itself is long and hollow
Based on the above identified features, I took a very young specimen home to cook up very simply in a small amount of butter to test its flavour. It may seem like a lot of effort for a single tiny mushroom but I was keen to observe some of the basic rules of mushroom foraging – the first being that if you’re not 100% sure, don’t pick it and definitely don’t eat it; and the second that when trying foraged mushrooms for the first time, it’s wise to try only a small amount (without alcohol) – even if you are 100% sure of its identity. Particularly important for this mushroom species as its cousin, the alcohol ink cap or Coprinus atramentarius is known to cause palpitations and nausea when mixed with alcohol. It pays to be extra careful!
Despite my assurance and repeated re-assurances, the Co-pilot ate his small mouthful of the shaggy mane mushroom very dubiously – not because he didn’t trust my identification, that he knew I would have researched utterly thoroughly, but because our past foraging missions haven’t resulted in the nicest tasting rewards. He cites one of our popular Sydney foraged mushroom finds as having the taste, texture and appeal of styrofoam and the other of wet dog.
Thankfully the shaggy manes were sweet and not unlike oyster mushrooms in texture. And crucially, they were many, many times tastier than any other foraged mushroom we’d previously found in Sydney and I certainly wanted more! Here I need to make it clear that not all ink cap mushrooms are edible – you don’t want to casually mistake this mushroom for others in the ink cap family like the similar looking Coprinus picaceus which is not edible and possibly poisonous. As per all my foraging posts, I can’t stress enough that you really need to be 100% sure when foraging for mushrooms!
Hygiene notes aside, as we drove along the French countryside, marvelling at the landscape, more often than not, the Co-pilot would be staring at distant towering craggy mountains whilst I kept my peripheral vision keened on roadsides for mushrooms. My occasional bellows of “mushroom!” had the Co-pilot patiently and frequently stopping the car allowing me to fling the doors open and dart like a madwoman across fields and into forests to investigate patches of would-be mushrooms. Often my optimistic mushroom spotting turned out to be nothing more than leaves catching the light, or in one case of sadly mistaken identity, a small pumpkin I’d very excitedly thought was an enormous cep or porcini mushroom.
But my mad vigilance paid off when we spotted the mother haul of shaggy manes. On a grassy patch on the side of the road, an impressive stand of sentinel shaggy manes stood liquefying into black ink. There were a few specimens that we’d caught early enough and had only just started showing the tell-tale pinky black tinges that preceded the full inky deliquescence so we considered taking them as the ink is actually safe to eat – it just transfers that inkiness to everything else – much like cooking with squid ink. However, in the end we didn’t bother with those as just below that grassy knoll, at the edge of a paved track and bursting through the solid asphalt was a proud forest of shaggy manes. I’d read about such things in my foraging books, but to see with my own eyes, the wonder of these soft, fragile structures that melt into ink in a matter of days and that I could easily crush between my fingers – it just defied logic that they’re then able to punch through solid asphalt!
Evidently, we weren’t the first to have spotted these mushrooms as some had been uprooted and kicked over, but there were still plenty to go around. As shaggy manes are known to sprout in parks and urban areas, foragers need to take care that their haul is clean and free from toxins like park pesticides or roadside exhaust. Having deduced ours was safe, we collected enough of the younger specimens for a meal and ferried our precious cargo home.
Without much guidance on how to properly clean and prep shaggy manes, I wiped away the sticky, shaggy fur on the cap as that seemed to be the source of most of the dirt and halved all the mushrooms. As a cross section, you can really appreciate the structure of the mushroom – the hollow brittle stem; the closely packed gills; and of course the sure signs of deliquescence. I was so fascinated that I kept a few of the mushrooms aside to observe the onset of deliquescence over the next few days. The rest we cooked up with a good amount of garlic, parsley, a splash of cider and served with plenty of crusty bread to mop up all the sauce. The end result may not win beauty contests, but it was so tasty and being one our more successful foraging adventures, it was incredibly personally satisfying. There is just something so right about being able to forage and get good, free food from the land.
Over the next few days I documented the slow decay of the shaggy manes and the inevitable ooze of ink that emerged in a series of daily photos.
By day 5 the caps had all but disintegrated leaving the stalks vainly arching skywards. The Co-pilot pointedly asked when I would be concluding my experiment so I figured it was a good time to let the experiment end at Day 5. All that remained is to test the ink and see whether those stories of George Washington using the inky spore liquid as ink had any truth to it. As you can see below, from my scrawl using a twig scribe, I think I’ve proved it definitely works as a substitute ink!
Keen not to waste those precious spores, I informed our lovely, accommodating gite owner about my mushroom experiment and after finding a suitable grassy spot, deposited all the inky spores there, with a hope that my attempts may reward them with shaggy manes there soon.
Our foraging senses now keened, we started seeing mushrooms of all shapes and sizes everywhere. I’ll leave you with a few snaps of our traipses around some of the majestic castles that are dotted all over Sarlat and surrounds. After admiring the architecture and interiors, the grounds around these castles provided me with so much fun – perhaps more so than the castles themselves! I know there are many issues with that previous statement. I know I should seek therapy for this obsession.
And that pretty much formed the routine of our days in France: driving around the French countryside – admiring the beautiful sweeping vistas, distant castles, changing autumn colours with the awe-struck silence in the car broken every few minutes with my cry of “mushroom”! Almost all of the mushroom foraging books commercially available are either based on European or American environments – so this trip enabled me to finally relate to those amazing and bewildering fungi that grace the pages of my books.
Now that I’ve had a taste of autumn in France, I can appreciate that it’s not just mushroom forager’s paradise – it truly is a forager’s paradise. The land is so generous and offers those who know what they’re looking for a ludicrously rich larder. It’s no wonder that the foraging movement in Europe is so well established and the traditions passed down through the generations and in my humble, more than slightly envious opinion, you’d be mad not to take advantage of and partake in this if it were on your doorstep.by