For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by mushrooms. Their variety, first and foremost. There's apparently 3,000 species that grow across France, with over 100 edible ones. They come in all sizes, shapes and colours; some are delicious and others are so toxic they could kill you! I think these are good enough reasons to be excited and passionate about mushrooms when you are a little boy!
Picking mushrooms is probably one of my best and most vivid memories of autumn as a child. I remember going for walks with my grandfather and my dog in the Luberon mountain looking for mushrooms. He taught me to recognise girolles, chanterelles, milk-caps, grey knights, black trumpets and many other species, and most importantly where to find them. I also remember having a lesson at school about local mushrooms, which fascinated me. My grandfather and I would spend long hours in the forest looking at our feet to find mushrooms. What a reward it was to fill your basket with mushrooms, bring them home proud, and eat them for dinner! We'd sometimes pickle them or let them dry, especially chanterelles, and we'd keep them in jars to enjoy all year round.
We'd also go morel picking in spring. I remember these were very hard to find and very valuable. One day I managed to pick and fill a basket full of them. My uncle took me to a fancy restaurant in Roussillon so I could sell them to the chef. The tall and intimidating chef looked at my basket, was impressed and gave me fifty Francs for them. The most rewarding part wasn't the money from the sale but the fact that the mushrooms I found were going to be on the restaurant's menu—what a proud moment!
From that day on, I was hooked! A lot of our friends and relatives also enjoy mushroom picking. It's always interesting to have a drink at the local bistro during the mushroom season to hear who's been finding some, who found them first, the stories of big mushroom-picking hauls, a car boot full of them... What's interesting is that we would never tell friends our mushroom spots in the forest, these are a well kept secret. I sometimes don't even tell my uncle where I have found mine! Whenever I am in Provence in October, I go mushroom picking to my spots, some of which haven't changed in 25 years. And I always get the same excitement when I find them and the same pride when I get home and show the rest of the family a basket full of mushrooms. Now, I also really enjoy cooking them, whether it's with some parsley and garlic or in a rich sauce.
When November comes, black truffle season starts. We don't pick them as you need a trained dog or a pig to find them and most of the black truffles are now being farmed in truffle orchards. It's very hard to find any in the wild as they're heavily regulated. Our region is the biggest producer of black truffles in France, ahead of the Perigord. The variety of black truffle that grows in the Luberon Valley or near Mt Ventoux is one of the finest and most sought after in the world. Prices at local markets can go up to 2,000 euros on the weekend before Christmas. We often buy truffles after the festive season, when the prices go down from lower demand, and also because their quality if often at its peak in January or February.
The black truffle trade is a fascinating world where discretion is key and transactions are always paid in cash. I have been buying my black truffles from the same (now old) lady for over 15 years at the market in Apt. My cousin, who used to trade truffles, taught me how to check the quality of truffles looking at their colour, their marbling inside or by checking their smell. A fresh black truffle tastes like nothing else. It's earthy, nutty and so complex. I love cooking with this exclusive ingredient and I sometimes just enjoy shaving some onto fresh toast with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. I never buy truffle oil because it's always made with truffle aroma, which taste nothing like the real thing.
Anyway, it's that time of year again. I booked my next trip to France in October and I simply can't wait to jump in my grandfather's old Citroen, head to my mushroom spots and hopefully find some mushrooms once more this year and cook them for the family. Wish me luck!