Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Mushrooms and the Pharmacist

While my camera is off for a spa treatment, which takes a week, and costs lots of money, I'll just talk a little bit. I won't get into the reasons why I have had to send it off for a soin, but it has something to do with food and my love of taking pictures in the kitchen.

I have mentioned before that the pharmacists here in this country are supposed to be trained to identify mushrooms. I was out gathering information about the communal ovens of mountain villages in the Bugey, and along the way just near Alain Chapel's place, we arrived to an intersection in two dirt roads. I was admiring the silhouette of a copse of oak trees and white cows dotted along the horizon of a field. It just looked magical. I asked Loic if he might stop the car and let me get out and take a longer look.

He pulled over, and I got out of the car and stumbled, a few yards into a field, upon what looked to be white things strewn across the ground. Taking a second look before stepping on them, having been trained in the city to watch my step, I realized that they looked like nice big field mushrooms, glowing white against the dark grass. I sort of broke one off, then another nice large white mushroom, with a kind of snap and fresh wonderful crisp feeling thump. Then I picked up another half dozen smaller ones. They looked absolutely scrumptious. Loic by that time was curious about what I had found. He saw them, and opened the trunk, looking for a basket.

Since we didn't have a basket, I just laid the mushrooms out carefully on the blanket, covered them with another cloth to keep them from rolling around, and we continued on our way. I made it to the towns I was looking for, through winding roads up into the mountains, and we fully inspected the ovens, took notes, and talked to the people there. Near sundown, we got onto a main artery heading back home.

I had nearly forgotten about the mushrooms when we got home, but at the last minute, got them out of the trunk. We were a little bit tired and certainly not going to eat the mushrooms before a good ID. I had the false information age impression that I could pull up some kind of identification database and quickly get them named before we went off to bed. After some fruitless searching with things getting mroe and more muddled, I realized it wasn't going to be that easy. There are a lot of factors to identifying mushrooms.

I decided to change gears and broke out my copy of Celebrating the Wild Mushroom, written by Sara Ann Friedman. I snuggled in under the covers, and by the bedside lamp, as Loic drifted off to sleep, I began to read about the love of mushroom hunting that has swept up many a gourmande in America.

I skipped to the chapter on identifying a few of the most common species, and read there:

The next section describes six of the most common toxic mushrooms and all of the deadly species found in North America. It lists their edible look-alikes and tells you how to distinguish them. You should always, of course, also check with your field guide if you are even the least bit suspicious.

I shuddered at the possibility. The mushrooms were safely tucked into a bowl in the refrigerator. Could they be deadly poisonous? Was there a possibility that somehow a mistake could be made? What a frightening prospect!

The other four deadly Amanitae - verna, virosa, bosporigera, and ocreata - are whiter, a bit taller, and more slender than a death cap. They are difficult to tell apart from one another and justly deserve their collective name: the destroying angel.

Ai yai yai. This was going to be an adventure indeed. I turned over in the bed, dragging the covers with me, and said to Loic, waking him up, that we'd better get the pharmacist involved if we planned to eat them. He was laying there with his eyes half open and glazed over. His mouth was opened slightly, and I didn't hear his breathing. His face seemed greenish in the light. I suddenly felt the urge to shake him! He smiled sleepily and said "you don't mean you're afraid to eat them?" I knew he was teasing me. I turned out the light.

The pharmacist knows me very well. She has my information on her computer and has seen me through every sniffle and sprain since we moved here. She has a staff of three. They are all pretty young but knowing the system here they have been preparing since grade school to be pharmacists. The young man on staff really gets into his job and loves being a part of the community. He likes to really get involved and explain things in great detail, and give all kinds of advice.

We went throught the pleasantries. "How is your back Madame Vanel?" I thanked him and told him it was doing much better.

"Tell me, I understand you can identify mushrooms, is this correct?" I asked, watching for any hesitation in his gaze or any sway from meeting my own. I was taking no chances. His face froze for that slight instant, that little fraction of a second, before relaxing again into a smile. I think I was his first mushroom customer. "But of course, Madame Vanel. Why don't you bring them in and I'll take a look at them." I said I'd be right back with my pickings, so he could identify them.

My place is just around the corner, and I rushed up the stairs and put the booty into a paper sack and returned to the pharmacy. He was nowhere to be found. I took a look at the shampoos and herbal teas, thinking he'd be out in a moment. He came out and I held up my bag. He glanced in my direction but then looked as if he didn't see me. He took a beeline for his colleague who was discussing some kind of pill schedule with an elderly lady who was seated at the other end of the pharmacy and at once looked deeply involved and interested in the conversation. The lady was basking in the joy of having two pharmacists at her beck and call.

The head pharmacist came out and she warmly greeted me. "It has been awhile, Madame Vanel", she said. "What brings you in today?" The young man was off the hook. "I have these mushrooms here, we found them in a field while out in the country yesterday".

"Ah, it is the season," she beamed. "We used to get a lot of people asking but these days it is rather rare," she said. Lets see what you've got. I brought out the largest one. "Ah." She silently turned it over in her hand and stroked the little skirt around the stem. Just as quickly as that she said, "Madame Vanel, these mushrooms do look like magnificent specimens. But what has me nervous is this little skirt here. I would say non." She pursed her lips and went back into the bag and pulled out the smaller ones.

"Non?" I repeated, meekly. Death angels. They were death angels.

"Non." She repeated again. I waited for her to continue, to say what kind they were, or to say something else. Non was the last word.

A slight wave of relief came over me and I smiled and thanked her. I did not even entertain the idea of eating them at that point. On the way home I chucked them in a garbage can. I did open the bag and let them tumble out, and watch them cascade in a beautiful heap down into the bin, remembering the beautiful excursion the day before, feeling a bit dizzy.

"Do you believe her?" said Loic, when I recounted the tale of my visit to the pharmacy. I just looked at him, since his question did not deserve an answer. "What did you do with them?" I lied to see the expression on his face. "Well, I didn't think they should go to waste, so I made an omelette for the widow who lives upstairs. I'm pretty sure the pharmacist was wrong, Loic. She seemed fine when she left." I tried to keep a straight face, but he wasn't fooled for an instant.

I just hope that a freegan didn't go fishing around in the garbage bin near the P'tit Casino at La Martiniere.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah a nice story Lucy. I often thought I should write about this. After I came back from France, not sure why, or maybe I do, but I told P that I would give anything to go and pick mushrooms, telling him about the pharmacist's in France. I used to go every year while in France, with an expert friend, collecting cepes, chanterelles. And so in a week, even if I did not pick mushrooms, I have cooked many times, in tarts and soups, so much so that P. asked if there was a special on mushrooms or something ;-) I told him it was nostalgia ;-)

1:12 PM, October 19, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree, a lovely story Lucy. And we all go through that beating heart phase when we stumble upon a "new" mushroom, one we didn't get last year and off to the pharmacy we rush! I adore mushrooms and that is probably the only reason why I would stand in the kitchen, painstakingly wipe/brush each one before they go into the pan.
Hope your camera has a wonderful new life when you get it back, I always enjoy your pics(and of course your stories)!

4:49 PM, October 19, 2007  
Blogger winedeb said...

Thank you for that great story Lucy! Foraging for mushrooms out in a deep, dark, damp forest has been on my list of "to-do" things for a long time. Hopefully get there some day.
Looking forward to more of your great photos when your newly revived camera arrives back home!

9:14 PM, October 19, 2007  
Blogger Slippery Rock said...

love the site

clare M

9:14 PM, October 20, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Lucy,

I now live in New York but was born in Valence and lived in Vienne and Lyons for a combined 5 years as a teenager and student.

Your latest story reminds me so much of the sundays I spent with my parents as a kid hunting mushrooms in the fields or forests and breathing the fresh air of Ardeche, where my mum is from, or Monts du Lyonnais. I did not realize at the time how lucky I was. Now I do and miss it so much.

Your blog really rocks and do justice to this beautiful region. I know how much efforts it takes to adjust to life in France for foreigners. So, thanks for doing it and writing so beautifully about life and food in Lyons.

PS: I'm sorry your mushrooms were not edible. Pretty sure you'll have more luck next time ;-)

5:14 PM, October 21, 2007  
Blogger Anita (Married... with dinner) said...

I adore french pharmacies. they seem to be so sensible and useful -- of course they'd be trained to identify mushrooms... why don't pharmacists do this in other countries.

I'm sure there are exceptions, but every french pharmacist I have dealt with has been attentive, concerned, and extremely tolerant of my abysmal french.

9:33 PM, October 22, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...



My stepdaughters both had these for boyfriends.

You made me laugh out loud. Thank you!

6:39 AM, October 23, 2007  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Thank you for comments, friends. I love to see your reminiscences and thoughts here. Tana, your stepdaughters' freegan boyfriends sounds like a great story in itself! Thanks for stopping by!

9:22 AM, October 23, 2007  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Lucy,

I've just found your site (courtesy of a desire to find something to do with mirabelles other than make jam, BTW( and love it.

I've only recently taken up residence in France, but was aware of the opportunity to ask the pharmacist whether those I forage are edible, or not. Ours gave me 2 useful tips:

1) if you collect more than one variety, put them in separate bags so that if you have found a poisonous one, it won't taint the edible ones, and

2) with white-capped mushrooms, running your nail over the skin is a quick way of determining whether you can eat it, or not. If the "scar" left by your nail goes yellow ditch it. It is no good. If it stays white, the odds are that it is edible.

Many thanks, and thank you for a whole new world of procrastination!


7:14 PM, August 29, 2016  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Hi Alex. Thanks for coming by and pulling this oldie but goodie up from the depths.

8:22 AM, August 30, 2016  

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