La Canourgue

…We went back to La Canourgue this week. M’s grandma rented a house there for the last month, as she has every year for the last forty years, a kind of peaceful vacation.

La Canourgue is in the department of Lozere, in the Languedoc region. It’s the least populated department in France, bases its economy on cows and tourists, and interestingly has the lowest unemployment rate in France. This is because of the long-standing tradition whereby young people emigrate to cities such as Lyon, Marseille and Montpellier when they reach working age.

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This is the house. There’s a bedroom upstairs with old fashioned wallpaper and heavy wooden shutters where M and I stay with the baby. There’s a little garden full of flowers and an old apple tree leaning over the creek, facing a hillside covered in grazing cows. There’s railroad tracks nearby. It’s very peaceful, and at night the sky glitters full of stars, the Milky Way spanning the horizon. I stand in the garden in my bare feet in the dark, the grass wet and the scent of flowers in the cool air, trying to spot satellites crossing the heavens as the baby, snuggled in his sling against my chest, sniffles forlornly, overtired.

We go mushroom hunting in the daytime in the cool forest, among the slugs and the damp green moss, looking for the abricot colored chantrelles and for porcinins the color of fresh baked bread. We even find a variety of mushroom called pieds de mouton. As we come out of the forest, an old woman in brown stockings and a shapeless smock is coming along the dirt path with her cane, a basket in her hand. Although she can barely walk, she is searching for mushrooms too, and she inspects our haul gravely, with a twinkle in her eye.

“The people here are tough people,” Mathieu whispers to me as we leave.

We make omelettes with the chantrelles, and we all sit around the table into the evening. M’s grandmother is an excellent cook; I’ve never seen this kind of food. SHe is confused by my vegetarianism. As I sit drinking coffee in the morning, she is disassembling a jack rabbit next to me with a pair of bone breaking pliers, removing the head and separating the kidneys. The stew cooks all day, in a black sauce that I realize is rabbit blood (although Mathieu tells me if you can’t get blood, very often cooks will substitute dark chocoilate instead.) When she serves the stew, his grandmother takes the blackened head for herself, the tiny teeth still visible.

She prepares another dish called peau farci, stuffed rice and vegetable inside lamb stomachs, a kind of French haggis. That evening, they devour pig’s feet. There is always a selection of good cheeses at the end of the meal, and fresh grapes. I take the baby away at the end of the meal, sleepy at last, when everyone lights up cigarettes and keeps talking and laughing into the night.

Some pictures of the village…

 

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Fungus amongus

Well, I survived my first harvest season. Other than my alarm going off at four every morning, and living with a zombie (“living with” being perhaps an exaggeration, since he was asleep as soon as he got home…our interactions being mostly limited to me covering him with a blanket when he was too tired to get off the sofa and come to bed) it wasn’t too bad. The smell of fermented grapes that saturated the town (especially near the cooperative) is starting to disapate, to the gratitude of my first trimester-induced nausea, and the guys have settled into the serious business of making wine (which somehow seems to involve drinking a lot of it too, but I guess that’s normal if your workplace came equipped with dozens of floor-to-ceiling fermentation vats full of good wine. And, um quality control. Very important at every…every stage. I guess.)

Go ahead. Fill up a glass. 🙂

We decided to get out of town for the weekend to celebrate the end of seven-day work weeks and the beginning of the alarm clock going off at sane and reasonable hours. So: when we need quiet, we go to Anglés, in the Midi-Pyrenées.

🙂

Here. Sort of. It’s in the department of Tarn in the midi-Pyrenées and it’s where you go if basically you want nothing around you. There’s this little village, with a good bakery (of course, since this is France, you can still find KILLER croissants even in the middle of nowhere. You might get hungry in the middle of your nature experience, and what are you going to eat? Trail mix and stale energy bars? Mais non!!! Quelle horreur!) Hunting, this time of year, is a thing: for black pigs and rabbits and little game birds. ATVs are also pretty popular. And best of all?

MUSHROOMS! Yup;  the damp, green, moss covered forests of this region are full of porcini and chantrelle mushrooms. And THAT is why we packed up the car and headed to Anglés, on a gastronomic treasure hunt.

The precedent for me is even more symbolic. When I got off the ship last fall, Mathieu drove down to Barcelona and picked me up. This is almost exactly one year ago. And since the ships are pretty crowded places, I told him that I needed to decompress, to get away from people for a few days and remember how it felt to not wear a name tag, greet everyone with “Ma’am” or “Sir”, and basically to turn off the demon that the hospitality industry implants in your brain. (It takes a few days after signing off a ship to be able, when someone asks you how you are, to not respond with a cheery “Fantastic, sir!”…You will also find yourself in the supermarket attempting to give directions to people who appear to be lost, holding the door for EVERYONE, shying away from sitting down at the bar (What if someone else wants that seat?) and on and on. Seriously, it takes a few days to a few WEEKS to decompress and shake the guilt and deferential attitude, and until you do, you are not going to really feel much like yourself. So if you can go through the decompression away from people…well, it’s just better. I’ve learned.)

So, we went to Anglés, and my first ever night in France was here. His dad owns this old building that used to be the post office; it’s not finished on the inside but there is a bed, a nice kitchen, a HUGE shower the size of my entire bathroom at home…it’s nice, and peaceful. And it’s surrounded by farm land, forests, lots of hills…some cows…some retired people. Not much else.

Yes, a bakery with amazing croissants.

So, we headed out Friday in the middle of a thunderstorm that had the roads transformed into rivers and thunder that shook the window frames. Ever since my house burned down during a lightning storm, I am not super thrilled with the amazing discharge of energy that comes with this kind of thing, but I enjoyed it, enjoyed seeing the sky light up pink and make the world go into silhouette. We rode with our friends Quentin and Marine, and arrived after eleven pm, when we made a quick salad and pasta, and crawled off to sleep.

The next morning, we woke up to the church bells and set off with our knee-high rubber boots and ponchos into a continuing drizzle, ready to hunt!

There is a sort of trick to searching for mushrooms, and it’s a little like those Magic Eye drawings, scanning a landscape of leaves and moss that all very much looks the same, a constant pattern, waiting for that THING to jump out at you. You need to have an eye for it, because I have literally been staring right at them and not seen them. Mathieu is better than I am, but I found quite a few too. Porcini or boletes (the French called them cépe des pins, short for Boletus pinophilus ) which look like this:

…and then chantrelles (which the southern French called girolles) which are unmistakeable:

They are both excellent; the porcini taste really nutty and creamy and is just incredible, especially when young…and the chantrelle is almost apricoty, fruity, sort of almost a pumpkin taste. You can smell it when you pick the mushrooms. They are so good.

I can already here my mother getting worried about me misidentifying, but the reality is, there really aren’t any mushrooms that even remotely look like this in the forest where we hunt. There are what they call false chantrelles, but they don’t really look the same. They’re just another orange-ish mushroom. You can SMELL the difference, too. Chantrelles smell like heaven. These others smell like…well, like the woods. And there’s a sort of relative of the porcini called devil’s bolete, but the stem is red and generally (at least in France) much thinner and woodier. It also bruises blue if you cut it, so it’s pretty easy. The true bolete has a thick white stem, the underside of the cap is a bunch of tubes that look sort of spongey (in other words, no gills) and the cap appears almost like fresh baked bread.

Mushroom hunting is like fishing – even if you don’t catch anything, you still get to spend the day in nature; and we had six hours of hiking in the woods on the first day, and four hours on the second day. But we did pretty good on cépe on the first day and made a big beautiful risotto with them, with a pumpkin soup to start. It tasted like autumn. And the second day we came up short on the cépe but found a ton of chantrelles and cooked up an omelette with salad and good bread. It was really nice, and I think we are going to try to go back next weekend to get another haul.

They say mushroom picking is best a few days after the rain, and when the moon is waxing. I personally think that if ANYTHING were to get affected by the moon cycles, it would be mushrooms. They’re practically made of moonlight…dark, quiet, slimy little hidden things, thriving in mulchy wet leaves and rotting pine needles and mist. They’re just incredible…not really plant OR animal, something else. They say mushroom spores can travel unharmed through space, and I read that the world’s largest organism is actually a mushroom (okay, a mushroom mycelium).

Ha. No. Not like that. It’s not a single mushroom, but the branching threads, or hyphae, that grow underground in a web through the soil, often along tree roots, and allow the mushroom organism to absorb nutrition from the soil. It looks more like this:

From the Independent:

“The largest living organism ever found has been discovered in an ancient American forest.

The Armillaria ostoyae, popularly known as the honey mushroom, started from a single spore too small to see without a microscope. It has been spreading its black shoestring filaments, called rhizomorphs, through the forest for an estimated 2,400 years, killing trees as it grows. It now covers 2,200 acres (880 hectares) of the Malheur National Forest, in eastern Oregon.

The outline of the giant fungus stretches 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometres) across, and it extends an average of three feet (one metre) into the ground. It covers an area as big as 1,665 football fields.

The discovery came after Catherine Parks, a scientist at the Pacific Northwest Research Station in La Grande, Oregon, in 1998 heard about a big tree die-off from root rot in the forest east of Prairie City.

Using aerial photos, Ms Parks staked out an area of dying trees and collected root samples from 112. She identified the fungus through DNA testing. Then, by comparing cultures of the fungus grown from the 112 samples, she determined that 61 were from the same organism, meaning a single fungus had grown bigger than anything anyone had ever described before.

On the surface, the only evidence of the fungus are clumps of golden mushrooms that pop up in the autumn with the rain. “They are edible, but they don’t taste the best,” said Tina Dreisbach, a botanist and mycologist with the US Forest Service in Corvallis, Oregon. “I would put lots of butter and garlic on them.”

Digging into the roots of an affected tree, something that looks like white latex paint can be seen. These are mats of mycelium, which draw water and carbohydrates from the tree to feed the fungus and interfere with the tree’s absorption of water and nutrients. The long rhizomorphs that stretch into the soil invade tree roots through a combination of pressure and enzyme action.

In 1992, another Armillaria ostoyae was found in Washington state covering 1,500 acres, near Mount Adams, making it the largest known organism at the time.

“We just decided to go out looking for one bigger than the last claim,” said Gregory Filip, associate professor of integrated forest protection at Oregon State University, and an expert in Armillaria. “There hasn’t been anything measured with any scientific technique that has shown any plant or animal to be larger than this.”

Kind of cool, right? Put another way, this humongous fungus would encompass 1,665 football fields, or nearly four square miles (10 square kilometers). It’s probably also one of the OLDEST: Based on its current growth rate, the fungus is estimated to be 2,400 years old but could be as ancient as 8,650 years. The mushrooms that pop up thus can be thought of as fruit, growing off an immense subterranean network. They look like this above ground:

honey-mushrooms

So, anyway. We will return next week to refill our baskets. One thing M and I have in common…both of us are WAY happier in the woods than just about anywhere else, and so we enjoyed a really relaxing weekend. I’m back in school this week…and he is back to making wine. Not a bad life!