Autumn is a strange season, hovering between the memory of summer and the onslaught of the coming winter; its passing is made easier by the appearance of the jewels of the forest… wild mushrooms.
These are not the white cap commercial varieties grown in the dark in sterile conditions, these are the real deal, mushrooms which deserve names such as Morilles, Pied de Mouton, Trompette de mort and of course the Girolles.
Traditionally autumn is the time when the French disappear into the woods with furtive backward glances, ensuring that their secret mushroom haunt remains just that; theirs and secret. You can always try asking a Frenchman where the mushrooms grow… but he will probably just shrug his shoulders, walk away shaking his head - laughing to himself.
These secret places, ‘les bons endroits,’ passed from father to son are not given up lightly. A full moon, after the softest of rains is the best time to go, baskets battered and worn carried as a badge of honour portraying an individual’s mushroom gathering credentials.
But, it can be a risky business, not all mushrooms are edible and every year people die in France from having eaten poisonous examples notwithstanding that all pharmacies are able to give advice on mushroom types and at this time of the year mushroom fairs are arranged so one can learn from the experts.
Now a few varieties are available fresh in the supermarkets vegetable sections or dried hidden away on some high long forgotten shelf, they are expensive.
The Girolle is a mushroom not to be missed. Many are collected wild but they are now cultivated in Rumania and the United States and are not confused with any inedible varieties.
The Girolle is one of the world's best-known wild mushrooms growing in woodlands under Oaks and Conifers, sometimes in perfusion. Its official title Cantharellus cibarius does this golden prize no favours at all but this pleasantly aromatic fleshy wild mushroom shining like an exotic golden flower, when seen from a distance, against the drab brown of the autumnal forest floor.
The French know them as Girolles, so do the Italians. The Germans know them as Pfifferling and in general we the British…know them not.
Mushroom gathering was a common past time between the wars, but the experience needed when gathering wild mushrooms seems to have been lost, as have many of the wild varieties which used to grow in the UK.
If you get the chance to taste some before the season ends then you will be fortunate indeed but like any fresh food a little knowledge will help with that enjoyment.
Girolles when bought should look appealing. They should look and feel firm to the touch and certainly not slimy or have any dark decaying parts. It is better to hand pick each Girolle with care making sure you get the very best. Avoid scooping a bagful, as they are expensive, €19-25 a kilo, and buying slimy examples is just a waste of money.
The Girolle is distinctive in both flavour and texture. Spicy, peppery although some mention an Apricot undertone, which seems to escape me. They should be firm, almost crisp and should look appealing.
Girolles are delicate and like all mushrooms do not like being submerged in water during cleaning, it destroys the flavour. If they have to be washed then this should be done just prior to cooking and is better done under a running tap, wet mushrooms will not keep. Fresh mushrooms keep best in brown paper bags as opposed to plastic, which causes them to sweat and rot prematurely.