Free Food in France
Many French believe that free food tastes better
I have never lived in a country where foraging was taken quite as seriously as it is in France. It is as though the French still haven’t really diluted the hunter-gatherer gene that we all have lurking deep in our ancestry somewhere.
The year starts off with dandelions. The flowers are made into wine and the leaves are used in salads. You could, of course, pop into the local supermarket and purchase a nice crunchy iceberg lettuce but that just wouldn’t be as much fun. After that, it is the wild asparagus that twines through hedges and other hard to get at places. You need to collect for hours to make even a decent side dish but….well it’s free. Later in the year, it will be wild plums and then blackberries. Month by month there is always some delicacy to forage for depending on your level of expertise.
The gathering of wild harvest is not at all limited to poor homeless people and freelance writers.
Drive along any country track when there is some edible freebie to be had and you are bound to see someone wandering around with a basket on their arm, or a posterior protruding from a hedge. Somewhere nearby you are likely to spot their parked car and there is as much chance of that being a luxury import as one of the tiny little Citroen ‘deux chevaux’ that is the most popular mode of transport among rural farmers.
At the moment it is the season for wild mushrooms and this is a national foraging favourite. People will risk life and limb for a few hundred grams of free mushrooms that they could easily buy at the local farmers market.
Every year approximately one thousand French people are poisoned from eating toxic mushrooms and between thirty and forty of those will die.
The most toxic mushroom, and the one that accounts for most fatalities, has the wonderful name of ‘calice de mort’ or death’s chalice. It is an enticingly beautiful looking mushroom that has an eat me now sort of aura about it that the unwary find difficult to resist. Death is not a deterrent when it comes to the important subject of free food. We forage on regardless.
If poison fungi don’t get you, there are other dangers to take into consideration. Mushroom season coincides with hunting season. Hunting has always been a popular traditional sport here but today many of the younger population have abandoned it in favour of other pastimes. That means that many of the hunters aren’t quite as young as they once were. Apparently, after a certain age, it becomes quite easy to muddle a basket toting mushroom hunter with a charging wild boar and the confusion frequently results in casualties.
Finally, there is the risk posed by other mushroom hunters. It is legal to gather mushrooms on state land provided you don’t collect more than five kilograms of them. It is easy, however, to wander from state land onto to private property as boundaries are seldom very clearly defined. If a landowner sees your parked car and even suspects that you might be foraging on his turf, it is standard practice to let down or puncture the vehicle's tires.
Despite all these obstacles, no self-respecting French man will allow himself to be intimidated out of such a culinary delight as wild mushrooms.
That hand full of chanterelles or basket laden with cepes is simply too irresistible. To leave such a mouth-watering delicacy uneaten would be an insult to France’s culinary heritage.
I have to admit that the foraging bug has bitten me hard in my years here. There are several varieties of fungi to be found in the woods near me. Among foreigners, there is a widely held belief that if you take your mushrooms to the local pharmacist he will tell you which are edible and which are likely to send you to an early grave. I only tried this once and the result was not encouraging. After digging through my basket he frowned and winced and made umming and ahhing noises that were clearly erring on the side of caution. In the end, the only advice he would commit to was that if after eating them I were to start vomiting, I should seek medical help immediately. Even without a pharmacological degree, I could probably have figured that one out myself.
These days I stick almost entirely to cepes when foraging. They are easy to identify and are my favourite mushroom to cook. I don’t get too involved with the many complicated recipes that people propose. I think that fried in cream or turned over gently in an omelette are the two ways that really bring out the wild mushroom taste most effectively.
There is an old man that sells cepes at my local market. His are always bigger and juicier looking than mine ever are. Cleary, a lifetime of hunting for them has taught him where the best mushrooms are to be found. I never buy his wares though. I just know that my free mushrooms will taste better than anything he could possibly sell me.