Sunday, February 04, 2007

Magic mushrooms


The word ‘mushroom’ comes from the French mousseron, which today refers to a particular type of mushroom but which once was a name for all kinds, including poisonous ones. The French word for mushroom, on the other hand, is champignon, derived from the Latin word meaning ‘of the fields’.


Perhaps the most famous of all mushrooms is the truffle. The only truffle I have ever eaten has been a chocolate one: this is because truffles are among the most expensive foods in the world and is not the sort of thing you’d find at your local supermarket, although truffle-flavoured pâté might be affordable. A white truffle from Italy recently sold for £62,000 which is quite a sum for what is basically a fungal tree parasite. They are expensive because they are rare and cannot be easily cultivated. They grow underground beneath certain kinds of tree, often oaks and it takes about forty years for a wild oak tree to grow to a stage where truffles will appear - then they have to be sniffed out by specially trained dogs or female pigs. Pigs are better than dogs because they love truffles and have a keen sense of smell – and there is another reason. Truffles give off an aroma similar to male sexual hormones so the poor old sow gets quite worked up thinking she’s in for a fun afternoon (this only works for pigs by the way). You’d think she’d be disappointed when all she unearths is a warty fungus but she’s easily pleased and the real problem is to retrieve the truffle before it’s gobbled up. If the truffle hunter manages to wrench it from her, it is in his interest to give her a piece as a reward otherwise the stubborn sow is perfectly capable of disobeying her master the next time. Sows are not light on their feet either and as hunters have to cover a large area of land, dogs are also used – although they tend to get excited about anything and will dig up old boots or rotting vegetables indiscriminately.


Many hunters look for truffles on their own these days and some even claim to be able to sniff one out hidden a foot beneath the ground. Other indications of their presence are characteristic cracks in the soil and a patch of dead leaves or a bare spot caused by a truffle releasing a chemical that kills all foliage around its host. Sometimes swarms of small brown flies can be seen hovering just above the ground where truffles are growing. A special metal-tipped cane called a cavaillon is used to dig up the truffle – a delicate operation, unless you are a pig. The truffles are sold in special markets from mid-November to mid-March in the principal truffle-producing regions of the south-east (Provence) and the south-west (Perigord) but you really have to know your mushrooms if you are serious about buying.


Truffles are considered to be aphrodisiac which may have something to do with the effect they have on sows. In the seventeenth century, the renowned gastronome, Brillat-Savarin, claimed that truffles rendered ‘women more affectionate and men more amiable’. But other mushrooms have the same reputation. In the eleventh century the Normans traditionally prepared a wedding dish that contained a pound of mushrooms - to be fed to the groom only. Mushrooms have been known to push up paving stones and it is this strength and vigour that is believed to give them their aphrodisiac qualities. You get the picture…







France is considered to be one of the first countries to formally cultivate mushrooms and it is said that Louis XIV was the earliest mushroom farmer. Button mushrooms are known as champignons de Paris and they were grown in the quarries beneath Paris during the reign of Napoleon. When the Metro was being built, cultivation was moved to the Anjou region which still produces most of the country’s mushrooms. Champignons de Paris are grown on compost made from horse dung: this thought may put you off your soup but at least the mushrooms are cheap and plentiful, unlike wild mushrooms which are only cheap if you gather them yourself.



France is a nation of mycophiles and many people do pick and cook their own mushrooms. Of course, if they then invite you to dinner, this can be quite unsettling in more ways than one and you can only hope that they checked with the local pharmacist - usually trained in mycology - before tossing the mushrooms into the pan. I am too much of a coward to gather mushrooms for myself. Some poisonous ones are easily confused with edible ones and some edible ones have names like ‘Trumpets of Death’ which is hardly reassuring. I play it safe and buy them pre-packed, frozen or dried. At least that way, nobody’s going to get ill eating my food. At least not because of the mushrooms anyway…

8 comments:

Pam said...

We have gone mushroom hunting several times with French friends who, luckily, know the difference between 'good and not-good' mushrooms...without fail, I find the not good ones... Now whenever I find a mushroom I just point to it and say, no good?, then wait for the affirmative nod. Ah, well. I am okay at selecting chocolate truffles!

mountain dweller said...

We've got a friend who goes hunting for truffles using the "fly method". He added a small amount to an omelette for us once and although I probably shouldn't say this, I think they're highly over-rated!

Jules said...

That was so interesting! Thank you for that. I am with Pam, a master at chocolate truffles!

Sarah said...

I'm with you on mushroom hunting. I went once with some pharmacist friends and felt quite safe eating what they agreed we pick. Otherwise, it's frozen or fresh from a supermarket/market for me!

Roland said...

Magic Mushrooms are a great find, it can be used to many things, including in the acient ages, by the maias, to heal people (few people konw this one).

Tinsie said...

I really enjoyed reading this. I too am of the chocolate truffle brigade, but I enjoy cooking and eating mushrooms (the supermarket varieties only). I doubt I'll ever so much as cast an eye on a truffle, let alone eat some, but it's good to know what they are at least ;-)

Gigi said...

I've never seen or tasted a truffle...I've tasted morilles though. They smelt heavenly while they were cooking but I was a bit disappointed with the taste.

Chocolate truffles are never disappointing though :-)

Tinsie said...

You can say that again!!