Once Phillip and I got back from our excursion to Northern Spain, we prepped our apartment for its first overnight visitor. Jin, that wonderful friend of mine with whom I’d pass leisurely lunches in San Francisco’s financial district after head-bangingly frustrating trips to the French Consulate last summer, was between jobs and decided to spend the last of her free time in Europe. When she asked if she could pop into the Dordogne for a bit, we accepted immediately, but soon found ourself asking the question: how do we show her a good time à la périgordine? There was of course the option of stuffing her full of foie gras until her own foie was in fact gras. Then we could take her round to the markets, force her to imbibe glass after glass of wine, march her up and down the aisles of the hyper-marché, and take long drives through the countryside. And lets of course not forget our sparkling conversation, itself worth the difficult detour to one of France’s least accessible departments. But after all was said and done (and consumed), where would that leave us? What would we do? We thought long and hard…
We’d hunt for mushrooms! Ben dis donc, on cherchera des champignons! Dordogne is already renowned for its cèpes and truffles, so a visit surely would not be complete without a bit of mycology, not to mention the great disservice we’d be doing Jin if we didn’t look for the mushrooms ourselves. We came to this decision late in the afternoon and hopped into the car as the sun was setting, direction Sorges, pays de la truffe. A town who’s population doesn’t number more than 1,500, it was dead when we showed up, save for the boulangerie. We parked and started walking. A narrow dirt path caught our attention and we were soon wading uphill through the moss.
But before frying them up for an omelet, or ladling them in a soup, the next morning we packed up the pretty ones and took them to the pharmacy down the road. Phillip remembered hearing that French pharmacists were required to have an intimate knowledge of mushrooms – the safe, ingestible ones, as well as the awful, deadly ones. As anxious as we were to cook a five-course mushroom-on-mushroom meal (a bit incestuous, granted), I think we were all more excited to find out if our neighborhood pharmacists could really give us a qualified opinion. How would they react to a few giggly foreigners walking in the door with an egg carton full of of slightly decaying mushrooms?
Jin and I simply could not contain our excitement/hesitation/embarrassment/shame, as is documented in these dorky photos of us, right before we crossed the threshold of the first pharmacy (an important distinction that should suggest to the reader that this story is still quite far from over).
I hardly finished asking the question before the woman at the counter started waving her hands, repeating “non, non, non” until we left. A block down the street there was another pharmacy, but the lines were long and we gave up. At the third, around the corner, we drew the attention of all four women working, though they all seemed too scared to give an opinion, or even look in the box. The fourth and fifth were willing to peek, but told us that what we had collected were probably all inedible. The sixth pharmacist that we met said that she wasn’t knowledgable enough, but that a woman who was would be starting her shift in a half-hour and that we should come back then. It was the best response we’d had all day, so we decided to wait in the bookstore next door, not surprisingly in the mushroom foraging section (next to the truffle-sniffing, berry-picking, and wild boar hunting sections). We didn’t make any identifications based on what we read, but were pretty discouraged by the recurrence of “mortel,” “non comestible,” and “toxique” in bright red letters under most of the pictures.
A half-hour later, we were given a lesson in the importance of mushroom stocks, roots, skirts, fibers, gills, and smell, from someone who was without question, very knowledgeable about mushrooms. The most important thing to retain from the meeting was that none of our mushrooms should be eaten. They would all make us sick, with the exception of one, which was good. In theory. Had it not been pressed up against our other poisonous mushrooms, we could have split it between us three ways for a disappointing snack (the pharmacist described its taste as “mediocre” and its texture as “bad”). But with the company it had kept for the past day, it was now as good as toxic, too. Nature versus nurture?
So we went home with no dinnertime prospects, huge quantities of “cortinaires couleur de rocou” (in English known as “lethal webcaps”), and an overwhelming urge to wash our hands. But not before cutting into two of the weirder fungi that we found…
Gah! Gross! The bottom one we believe is called a “scléroderme vulgaire” (how fitting!), though the jury is still undecided if the top one is indeed a dinosaur egg.