Fall might be my favorite season in southwestern France, perhaps because I’m still discovering the sights and smells at that season. Although I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ farm while growing up, I was never there between la rentrée and Christmas: I usually left early September to get ready for school in Paris. My biggest regret is to have never experienced les vendanges: after tending to the vineyard throughout the Summer, I would have loved to be there when all our neighbors came to help harvest and stomp the grapes.
By chance, a couple of trade shows take place in Paris in September and in October: in the past few years, I’ve had a few opportunities to catch the train and meet with the family for a few days. The vineyard is gone but we still harvest walnuts, chestnuts, apples, and quinces. And, if the weather and the moon cooperate, there might also be mushrooms. I got an early education in mycology under the guidance of my dad and my grandfather who were both avid foragers. I quickly learned to recognize the good, the bad, and the ugly but if you’re not sure what to pick, you can always take your mushrooms to the local pharmacy and they will tell you what to keep and what to discard. Try doing that at CVS!
In spring, we searched for morilles. They’re small and hollowed: it takes a lot of these to make a pound! My largest morel find actually happened in the US. I was working in Chico at that time and renting a little condo with a small backyard that had been dressed with a layer of bark from the Sierra. One evening in March, I stepped outside and noticed something that looked like a small sponge. Upon closer examination, I was sure it was a morel. I was shocked! As I bent over to pick it up, I realized the whole backyard was teeming with morels! I had never seen that many of them in my whole life. I gathered close to two pounds of fungi within minutes. I called my travel agent (she lived in the same complex, a few units down from me) and asked her to take a look at her backyard: could she see mushrooms there as well? Yes! I told her they were some of the most sought-after mushrooms on earth and shared my favorite recipe. Chris was absolutely horrified that I would be eating mushrooms that were not store-bought. She actually called me at the office the next morning to make sure I was still vivante.
In summer, we usually found cèpes: those are large and heavy. If you know where to look, you can pick up several pounds very quickly. But my all-time favorite mushroom is the girolle: I love its very distinctive texture and its nutty flavor. After walking in the woods for a couple of hours, always accompanied by grandfather’s Brittany spaniel, I usually came home with three to four pounds of girolles that we would immediately prepare for lunch. Grandma simply sautéed them in duck fat, along with scalloped potatoes, seasoned with a lot of garlic and fresh parsley. The aroma would fill the whole house (well, it’s a small house…) To this day, it remains one of my very favorite dishes.
La rentrée: back-to-school
Les vendanges: the wine harvest
La morille: morel
La girolle: golden chanterelle
Le cèpe: porcini
Pommes de terre Sarladaises
3 tbsp duck fat
½ lb wild mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini…)
1.5 lbs potatoes
Salt and pepper
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
Fresh parsley, chopped
Clean and slice the mushrooms. Sauté in 1 tbsp of duck fat for 5 minutes (until they’ve released their water) and reserve. Peel, scallop and rinse the potatoes. Dry them thoroughly. In a heavy sauté pan on medium-high, heat the remaining duck fat. When the fat is hot, throw the potatoes into the pan and cook for 5-10 minutes until golden. Gently flip the potatoes over with a wide spatula and cook another 10 minutes. Add reserved mushrooms. Add garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper to taste. Mix together and cook 5 more minutes. Serve immediately.
If wild mushrooms are not available, you may use crimini or Portobello. But you MUST cook them and the potatoes in duck fat. Potatoes will be crispy but tender inside. Yum!
Duck fat can be purchased at frenchselections.com