Foraging for shaggy mane mushrooms in Sarlat, France

by Forager on October 14, 2013

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.

red pores, bolete, mushroom, Boletus frostii, Boletus erythropus

An old specimen of a colour changing red-pored bolete, possibly Boletus frostii or Boletus erythropus

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!

Coprinus comatus, shaggy manes, lawyer's wig, foraging, mushroom,

Finding shaggy manes (clockwise from top right): a young shaggy mane specimen; a mature specimen with early signs of deliquescence; and an old specimen that has melted away

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.

Coprinus comatus, shaggy manes, lawyer's wig, mushroom, foraging, foraged,

Testing out the shaggy manes – first our specimen was dissected and identified properly; then we cooked it simply in butter to taste its true flavour

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!

Coprinus comatus, shaggy manes, lawyer's wig, foraged mushrooms, wild, foraging,

A fresh shaggy mane haul punching their way through solid asphalt and the sticky “shaggy” residue left from the harvest

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.

Coprinus comatus, shaggy manes, lawyer's wig, foraged, foraging, mushrooms, wild

Cleaned and dissected shaggy manes – ready for the pan

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.

Coprinus comatus, shaggy manes, lawyer's wig, foraging, foraged mushrooms,

Cooking up our haul of shaggy manes with butter, garlic, parsley and served with plenty of bread to mop up the sauce

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.

Day 1 shaggy manes, deliquescence, Coprinus comatus, lawyer's wig, ink

Day 1: observing the deliquescence of the shaggy manes. Early signs of deliquescence with the gills of the specimen on the left already dark but not yet inky. Specimen on the right is free from deliquescence

Day 2 shaggy manes, deliquescence, Coprinus comatus, lawyer's wig, ink

Day 2: The gills of the specimen on the left are dark throughout and starting to deliquesce into ink. The specimen on the right is just starting the process with telltale pinky-black tinges on the gills

Day 3 shaggy manes, deliquescence, Coprinus comatus, lawyer's wig, ink

Day 3: Obvious deliquescence in both left and right specimens. Some structure remains in the gills, holding the specimen together from total collapse

Day 4 shaggy manes, deliquescence, Coprinus comatus, lawyer's wig, ink

Day 4: More advanced deliquescence in both specimens and production of runny spore liquid

Day 5 shaggy manes, deliquescence, Coprinus comatus, lawyer's wig, ink

Day 5: Total deliquescence of the specimens. Very dark spore liquid produced

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!

shaggy mane ink, Coprinus comatus, lawyer's wig, George Washington,

Proof of concept – shaggy mane ink actually doubles as working 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.

Chateau de Hautefort, Sarlat, Dordogne, castles, France

The majestic Château de Hautefort, built around 1000BC in the middle ages and surrounded by impressive, carefully manicured formal gardens and set on acres of landscape gardens

Chateau de Hautefort, mushrooms, foraging, Sarlat, France,

The Co-pilot realises I was not paying much attention to the impressive castle

mushrooms

The mushrooms I was distracted by. No idea what these were though

Clitocybe gibba, Clitocybe subbulpipes, Leucoagaricus leucothites, smooth parasol, poisonous mushrooms

Femme fatales? These pretty specimens weren’t properly identified but are possible poisonous suspects. The mushrooms on the left were a type of Clitocybe – possibly C. gibba which is edible or C. subbulpipes which is inedible. The mushroom on the right is Leucoagaricus leucothites, also known as the “smooth parasol” – perfectly white, smooth, unblemished and very much poisonous.

Lycoperdon perlatum, common puffball, mushroom, fungi, foraging, Fistulina hepatica, beefsteak fungus, liver, edible, aborigines,

Two choice edibles! The fungi on the left is Lycoperdon perlatum or “common puffball” and is edible when young; the one on the right is Fistulina hipatica or “beefsteak fungus”. It exudes a blood-like sticky liquid and is edible when young (though is acidic in flavour). It is one of the few types of mushrooms known to be identified and eaten by Aborigines in Australia.

Inonotus dryadeus, weeping bracket, oak bracket, oak tree, fungi, foraging, wild, France

A large bracket on the base of an oak tree turns out to be Inonotus dryadeus, otherwise known as oak bracket or weeping bracket. It is a parasitic fungi found at the base of oak trees, is uncommonly found and inedible, but is a fascinating find

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.

Chestnuts, Perigord, Sarlat, France,

Chestnut trees line country roads and in autumn they drop their bounty in great heaps and mounds – free for all to forage and enjoy!

Walnuts, Sarlat, France, Dordogne, Perigord

Walnuts are another local speciality and in late autumn the walnut trees drop their leathery fruit. Peeling away the husk and shell reveals the edible walnut seed within

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.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lizzy (Good Things) October 15, 2013 at 10:10 am

What an interesting and informative post! Your mushroom dish looks delicious too! Thanks so much for sharing.
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2 Janice October 15, 2013 at 12:49 pm

So enjoyed this post – took me back to our time (not quite so mushroom-focused) near Salat. Keep it up Trina – you write so well!

3 Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) October 15, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Now you’ve foraged for mushrooms here and in France! Any plans of doing so in America as well then?
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4 Anna @ The Littlest Anchovy October 17, 2013 at 4:02 pm

What an absolutely amazing post! I found it utterly fascinating – looking forward to many more mushroom foraging posts!

5 Richard Elliot October 18, 2013 at 7:15 am

I knew liked mushrooms, but didn’t realise it was such an obsession! But if you are playing with something that can be so potentially dangerous it is best for it not to be a passing interest……

I’ve booked Au Passage for my girlfriend’s birthday dinner in fortnight. I’m hoping we might be able to get some early season truffles while we are there.
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6 Jem November 12, 2013 at 6:52 pm

Stumbled across your blog. Great article on mushrooms and I can’t wait to do some picking myself.

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