Monday, August 30, 2010

Les Coulemelles : Parasol Mushrooms

After some cool weather and rain, I slipped out one morning when the sun was shining, carrying a little basket with the intent to go and check the chanterelle patch we found last year. I decided on a detour at first, down to the river. There on a shelf of the old wall that sections the forest from the meadow, under an ash tree, I saw two fresh looking parasols. I scrambled up to gather them, and although they weren’t as big as the one Loic found the day before, I decided to take them. On the way back, I ran into a couple from Paris that owns the house ‘La Marjolaine’ and the lady looked in my basket. “Oh look, you’ve found some coulemelles (that's the French word for parasol mushrooms). But they look a little small.” I remembered the three criteria that Loic had been using to identify these mushrooms. One was the nipple on top, the second the easily movable upward oriented skirt, and third was the fact that the bulb-like bottoms were not nestled into any kind of volva. I was sure about it, but when she said that they seemed small, I paused.

When I returned home, Loic was still in the kitchen by the warm stove with a cup of coffee, surrounded by the stacks of mushroom atlases. I showed him my pickings and he immediately said we would have to check them more carefully. What? He was so sure the day before when we'd found an old one behind the house. I told him to come out of the dark and we sat down at the picnic table with the books. Now how is it that you were so sure yesterday and today you’re not sure about these ones I have found? He opened up one of the guides and showed me a photo of some mushrooms that looked almost identical to the ones I had found, and next to it was written “mortel” with a skull and crossed bones. The only difference between the parasol and this mortally poisonous mushroom is the size.

That was enough for me. We have a little baby who needs us to stay alive. There’s no way, especially after the woman in the hamlet below had remarked on their size, that we were going to touch them. I picked them, I could decide. But Loic had begun to cross reference the other books and atlases, still examining them. He was hemming and hawing over them, and I began to lose my patience. I'd left curiosity behind and sensed the rush of adrenaline that comes with a brush with mortally poisonous mushrooms.

He was approaching the issue with a detached scientific curiosity. Nothing could hurt in continuing to examine them, right? Then, he changed his mind. “Yes, it’s sure. Let’s eat them.” He turned to another guide and then said, “no, wait a minute” and read silently for a while. He was going back and forth like that and there I was staring at these mushrooms in front of me at the table. Finally I just lost it. I don’t really know what got into me. I picked them up and crushed them in my hands like they were pieces of corn bread while he made a guttural "ack, ack" sort of noise. Done. I tossed them over the electric fence into the neighboring pasture. He was stunned at first, then he got mad.

I stood my ground. We should not even consider the prospect of eating a mushroom if there is any possible chance it could be confused with a mortally poisonous one. He says that the guides give a limit of 6 cms, and these measured 8.3. A wide margin in a scientist's mind, especially for one who measures in nanometers for a living. For me, that means about an inch from a blind precipice. Gustatory pleasure, or death? What will it be? Sorry. I will not go that close. I got the impression that he was trying to convince himself to eat them. He was picking and choosing supporting reasons, and completely ignoring the one aspect that could make the difference. He gets mad every time I bring it up. He won’t back down. He says that they were edible.

It won’t destroy our marriage although it stung for a few minutes. I told him that in retrospect it reveals one thing: we have different thresholds for excitement. There is a margin, albeit small, within which he is invigorated, he considers it exciting to explore. At the same time that same margin for me is a danger zone. Flirting with disaster, even rhetorically, is inviting it as far as I can see. This did not make him happy. He quickly retorted that it wasn’t excitement that made him declare them edible, it was just the facts. For me, there is a point at which my motherly instinct kicks in and I will strike. There’s a point where things turn to black and white, yes or no, and I won’t even entertain a maybe. This was one of those cases. I’m a little superstitious. I don’t feel comfortable tempting the gods, or witches, or hobgoblins, testosterone, anything that could inject that little nudge to go ahead when it could go either way. We were very close. In fact I was convinced it was fine to eat them for a little while.

We went out as a family that afternoon for a walk. We decided to take a country road that goes up to a pretty pasture with a view of the valley. The baby loved it. We've found that the jogging stroller is really great on rural paths with its dirt bike wheels and huge shocks. The people of the hamlets we passed through all made a big hullabaloo about it because they don’t sell these kinds of strollers in France.

On the route home by chance, the baby and I were walking ahead while Loic trailed behind identifying trees. Some happily large parasol mushrooms towered majestically at the edge of the field in the sun. I could not believe my eyes. I didn't make a move. I looked back at Loic who was staring intently at a rotting log.

"I love the way the sun falls across this field at this time of day." I said, and turned to walk towards the woods we'd have to cross to get home. Behind me, a couple of minutes later, I heard Loic's "Ho ho!" and for some reason I felt the spirit of my father at that moment. If he is out there, up there, he put those good mushrooms out for us, for Loic to gather. They patched things over. They took the regret out of losing the others, made us forget our disagreement. John Sellers was standing right there with me, in any case, while Loic tended to a hickory log fire in the fire pit outside and I prepared them for grilling.

I brushed the caps off carefully, all very fresh clean specimens. Gills up, I drizzled them with my best green olive oil and seasoned them lightly with salt, pepper, and just a touch of very good fresh chopped garlic. Roasted over mature hot hickory coals, they were flipped only after about 45 seconds on each side, enough to get them sizzling and start to brown. I wedged the grilled caps into four, and served them to an invited guest from our hamlet and Loic on toasted country bread. Flavorful, tender, juicy, a buoyant surprise of excellent flavor, in fact I can easily say it was the best mushroom eating experience I have had so far in my life.



Blogger jenious said...

In my mind's eye, a similar fate would have befallen the original lot in our kitchen as well. (And, probably, a tiny quarrel too...) Truly a lovely post with an endearing ending. Cheers.

9:53 PM, August 31, 2010  
Anonymous Maria said...

I read your post with surprise, because just this weekend we were dicussing whether my aunt should eat a mushroom soup her friend was thinking of serving her. These mushrooms had been picked without any real knowledge and our advice was not to touch them. The risk is too high.

I think you did the right thing.

1:23 PM, September 01, 2010  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Thanks for stopping by, Jenious. I love your blog and subscribed to it.

Maria, we've been fascinated with the study of wild mushrooms for just a few years now and we would never eat anything without a clear i.d. on it. It takes some time to learn how they're all categorized and then more time to memorize details on whether a mushroom is going to taste any good. If they didn't know what they'd picked, she's better off not eating the soup.

3:20 PM, September 01, 2010  
Blogger janetmow said...

A year or so ago I found a large chanterelle in Oregon. I was pretty sure that's what it was (and we looked at books, websites, etc. to confirm). My husband, though, wasn't so sure. Lots of backing-and-forthing while the lovely mushroom got dryer and uglier on the counter top. In the end we tossed it (only to find out later that even the chanterelle look-alikes aren't poisonous, just not flavorful). Oh well. But I agree with the others--you were right not to risk everything for a few bites of mushroom!

5:42 PM, September 01, 2010  
Blogger RachelD said...

I'm with YOU, Maman.

We're not from mushroom-hunting areas, and despite living in morel country now, I've never even SEEN one.

But I LOVE that despite your total immersion in French cuisine, your elan and flair for lovely things, lovely times, lovely food, you took that possible threat into your hands and crushed it up like CORNBREAD. What a wonderful comparison---just perfect.

10:09 PM, September 01, 2010  
Blogger L Vanel said...

I was crushing that mushroom and thought to myself - this feels like cornbread. Hmm. There may be some deep-seated reason for that. I can't think of any except that the day before we'd eaten one that I cooked in a cast iron pan, or maybe that I crush cornbread like that every year at Thanksgiving for my stuffing.

9:02 AM, September 02, 2010  
Blogger Claudia said...

Every spring I have this dream - of finding fresh morels and devouring them. And every spring I have this nightmare - of finding false morels and poisoning everyone.

3:13 AM, September 03, 2010  
Blogger Heidi@AwesomeHerbs said...

That was close! I would have crushed the mushrooms too. Definitely not worth the risk of being poisoned!

1:04 AM, September 04, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

there is a phrase in mushrooming: 'when in doubt, throw it out.' you did the right thing,and as you see, there will eventually always be more to find!

7:33 AM, September 17, 2010  
Anonymous Priscilla Martel said...

And Lucy, we do not want to loose you, your family or anyone else for that matter. Another adage associated with mushroom foraging is "There are Old Mushroom Hunters. There are Bold Mushroom Hunters. But there are no Old Bold Mushroom Hunters." Where I live is a mushroom trove and for over 25 years we have been picking - but a mycologist friend taught me and he is the one we defer too. I actually picked an Amanita Caesar once and let my husband and a French friend eat it. It was edible, obviously, but never again. I restrict myself to about 10 types I really know. (Then there is the story about the impolite boletus I once ate.) Bon appetit.

8:02 PM, October 06, 2010  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Thanks Priscilla! Very good adage, and I plan to become an old mushroom hunter! Are you coming to Lyon this year?

9:26 PM, October 06, 2010  
Anonymous Anju said...

I'm with you. I wouldn't risk it.

10:56 PM, October 13, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Definitely we have tickets for early March in Paris so I will try to make a nip down to Lyons. We're thinking of a night in Dijon so that could work well. What do you think?

1:20 AM, November 04, 2010  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Yes, Anon, please contact me!

8:29 AM, November 04, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is an ignorant question but why did you not verify if they were edible or not with the local pharmacist? I find that when I have a heated discussion with a french friend (or spouse) that the 3rd party opinion is a good way to solve the mystery.

10:22 AM, November 05, 2010  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Thanks for your comment, Anon. A simple way to end it before it starts, isn't it? No local pharmacy, alas. We learned something important from it in the end.

11:07 AM, November 05, 2010  

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