One hour’s harvest of red pine mushrooms, also called saffron milk cap.
Mushrooms and Chestnuts, or Champignons et Châtaignes
Last week we donned our “wet forest” walking clothes and drove up into the hills behind town, in search of the edibles our forests could offer that day. It had rained two days before, and rain brings thoughts of the mushrooms that will appear shortly afterward.
Our first parking spot was in an area of scrub oak and some tall pine trees. It was the pines that captured our attention, because they mark the place to search for the vivid orange Lactaire Délicieux, also known as red pine mushroom or saffron milk cap.
I’d never seen these mushrooms before, so I was unsure of what I was looking for. But after Maryse found the first mushroom, I had a good idea of our target. Luckily for me, that orange is relatively easy to spot.
An hour later, we met at the car to empty our bags into the carton. Claude spotted a beautiful thyme plant, so we all had a lovely new supply of thyme to take home.
Back in the car, we left the pines behind and headed to the chestnut forest. I knew we’d arrived because the road was littered with the spiky burrs that contain the mahogany-shelled nuts. Maybe because they were bright lime green, the burrs reminded me of those anti-static bombs you put into the clothes dryer. Maybe a little sharper. Maybe not so good for your clothes. Anyway, with bags in hand we walked into the forest, emerging a half-hour later with a good harvest of chestnuts.
I have adored chestnuts ever since the first time I tasted the fresh roasted nuts purchased from a street vendor in Athens, oh so many years ago. Piled into a tightly-coiled cone of newspaper, the roasted nuts are quite hot to the touch and a black mess for your fingers. But on a crisp autumn day, there is nothing to match that flavor. Yum!
Our plan had also included some time to hunt for cèpes (boletus edulis or porcini), marvelously tasty mushrooms that are classically eaten in France with eggs or potatoes. But we had run out of time, and so we turned toward home with the results of our day of foraging in the forest.
After a quick lunch, I headed to Maryse and Claude’s house, where the mushroom work was in full swing. The mushrooms are cleaned thoroughly, with the ribs being scraped off and any bruised or miscolored parts cut away. After being washed under running water, they are cut into large pieces and placed into frying pans, and then gently sautéed to remove excess water from the mushrooms. When that’s done, they are drained, allowed to cool, and then packaged into bags or containers for the freezer. They can be sautéed a second time with a little water and white vinegar, cooked until the liquid evaporates and then placed into small jars with garlic, thyme, salt and oil, and then stored for up to a year. These pickled mushrooms are often served as an appetizer.
I froze most of my share, but ate some of them that night with lentils, rice and some sautéed veggies. Yum again!
The American chestnut
Widely considered to be the finest chestnut in the world, the American chestnut was almost entirely obliterated by a fungal blight that began in the early 20th century. A hardwood tree that numbered 3-4 billion before the blight, there are now very few trees remaining in their native habitat, although many more grow in areas where the blight doesn’t seem to exist. Scientists have been working for generations to breed a tree that is mostly American chestnut, with just enough DNA from other trees—typically the Chinese chestnut—to resist the blight.
All Saints Day and All Souls Day
I am writing this post on October 31, a day I think of as Halloween, full of wriggling kids dressed in delightful costumes, trying to stay warm on a crisp autumn evening, scouring their neighborhoods for handouts of candy. Jack-o’-lanterns, haunted houses, wailing ghosts, apple cider… Where I come from, Halloween is also a day off school (it’s the day my home state entered the Union) and a time to party for children and adults alike.
Halloween is also known as All Hallow’s Eve, and it traces its roots to the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, the last day of the year. It was a day when the dead were believed to return to earth, and were received in honor with costumes, food and bonfires.
As it did with other holidays, the church wanted to change the focus of the festival, and it was declared that November 1 would be a celebration of the Catholic saints, named All Saints Day. Later, November 2 was declared All Souls Day, a time to honor the dead.
Where I live now, these celebrations continue. The cemetery turns into a full-scale florist shop, with a colorful abundance of cut flowers and flowering plants. A stroll through the cemetery also reveals a moving array of memorial plaques, honoring the dead and offered in recognition of friendship, family ties, military service, and the person’s interests in life. Here in this corner of the world, people may be gone, but they are definitely not forgotten.