Mystical Champignons

15 Feb

Delicious! Chez Clo, Montpellier.

Perhaps no activity fills French families with nostalgia and anticipation (and causes the uninitiated American to cringe in fear) more than hunting the coveted cep mushroom (that’s porcini to you).

An Easter egg hunt for adults, it’s a magical trek. There are rare, valuable, (and delicious!) treats – hidden far from the urban world – buried under leaves and nettles, deep within a cool, misty, fir tree forest. They’re ephemeral; they come with the rain and the season; they only pop up one night in advance; they’re best to find at the first light of dawn.

 

Fairies live in these woods. Cevennes.

They’re free, and they’re waiting there for you if you can find them. There’s the danger that if you choose poorly, you’ll be poisoned. It’s hilly and slick, cold and damp, and surrounding you are gun shots and terrible baying from the hunting dogs in the chase for wild boar. It’s so, so much better in person than any movie or video game would have you believe.

These are what you’re looking for. Cevennes.

The preparation and the journey make it even more the mythical quest that it is. You rise before dawn and pack hot coffee and cheese and cloth sacks. Then you drive north into the Cevennes mountains, up and over winding roads only wide enough for one car, past expansive valley vistas, dodging white hunter’s trucks parked off the side of the road. Then you hike, searching out your favorite secret spot under the fir trees or next to the stream where the ceps like to hide, telling stories of the golden season when you found more mushrooms than you could carry home with you.

 

Definitely don’t touch these. Cevennes.

Well, ok, being the foreigner (and the artist), it always turns out that I get so preoccupied with how pretty the forest is and how cute all the other mushrooms are that I end up taking tons and tons of photos, and never find any edible mushrooms. We picnic and lay in the sun and take in the countryside and it’s easy to understand why this is a favorite French activity.

Grazing herd in the Cevennes.

This year we drove up much too early in the season to find mushrooms. However, we came upon several other chance encounters on our trip. We hiked, lunched, and talked with the hunters about how it was too early in the season for the mushrooms, then came across an entire herd of sheep grazing along our path. I’d never considered the possibility of modern shepherds just out with their animals in (completely industrialized) southern France, but I think the environmentalist-nutritionists would be happy.

Grazing herd in the Cevennes.

They were just passing through, feeding on the tender grasses near our favorite Cevennes site during the off-season. Each wearing colorful yarn pom-poms, as though they were dressed up for a county fair squaredance, you could hear their bells as they were led off to the next pasture. We all thought it was funny that their yarn decorations were made from what was once their own wool – as though it would be absurd to fashion a hat out of our own hair and then wear it.

Black sheep in the Cevennes.

Having completely failed at finding any mushrooms, we decided to stop at the scenic outlook nearby where were treated to a surprise. As it turned out, it was a national history day, and many of the national museums and parks had special activities going on. Mont Aigoual, where we’d stopped for the view, is also home to a national weather observatory – and we were some of the few to get a private tour of their facility and observatory experiments. The region has unique weather conditions, and the observatory team (it’s the last remaining weather station in France still inhabited by meteorologists) is housed in a turreted, stone fortress. Like a ship, they are completely self-sufficient, as they could get snowed-in for days. Merci à tous!

Grazing herd in the Cevennes.

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