Pied de Mouton, the Hedgehog Mushroom
The French named this mushroom after the shape of the cap, like a mutton's foot, and the English name is about the gills underneath, which look like the spikes of a hedgehog.
I like the symbol in both names, really. The flavor is good and earthy - nutty, mild and shy but at the same time really one of the best mushrooms you can find. In celebrating this wild mushroom, we celebrate that a mushroom doesn't have to be showy or pungent to achieve a certain level of excellence and play its part. Just like the hedgehog doesn't seek the spotlight, and the mutton has plain looking hooves that serve only to carry each member of a grazing ruminous herd, these mushrooms are rather humble but oh so good. They come on the cusp of chanterelles, a simple denouement to the summer, and in the wild they elude mushroom hunters, seeking out dark places in the forest, lining up in strings along the base of conifers. Firm fleshed, their texture and ability to hold up to cooking is what makes them so wonderful. Great with poultry, with cream sauce and simply tossed in butter, these mushrooms shine when a stage is set for them with minimal interference. When gathered small and cooked whole in number, they can cause quite a sensation.
Some people consider these the safest of all mushrooms to gather, since because of their unique gills they are so easily identifiable. Still, in France, pharmacists are trained to identify mushrooms, so you can take what you have gathered in and they will tell you if they are good to eat. This is encouraged and still practiced by the serious pharmacists. If you gather mushrooms in France, ask your pharmacist to check them out.
The gills on the underside of the cap gave them their English name.The ones that will be making an appearance at our table tonight were gathered on the bank of the Saone, at the market! A precious handful of these firm fleshed little nuggets wrapped in crinkly brown paper took me back a buck. They run a pretty penny then the price drops dramatically when they won't last much longer. I will enjoy them as much as I had taken a walk in the forest and come across them along the path, because catching them at this price is a find indeed.
How will they appear at my table? I will simply crumble them into sizzling foamy butter with a slivered shallot and serve them on toast, to begin. Then I will toss some into the pot with some chicken that I have browned and crispened and then combined with some wilted onions, shallots, pine nuts and spices, and smother them, top tight on the pan, with a splash of white wine, until the juices mingle and caramelize at the bottom. This will be nice with some courgettes.