In 1995 we bought a house in the Mayenne departement of France as a holiday ‘refuge’ with the idea of possibly living there more permanently one day. Mayenne lies just south of Normandy and is about the size of Cumbria. It has hills up to 400 metres high and several huge, old forests of mixed deciduous and coniferous trees which are nature reserves. To call it rural would be an understatement.

We bought the house from an English couple who had started with a mere shell and had subsequently made great ‘improvements’…but that’s another story. Whilst showing us the house they mentioned that the fields around were full of wild mushrooms in the summer and autumn and that the husband had often collected ‘sackfulls’ to distribute to the neighbours. I thought this must be rather an exaggeration but when our first autumn arrived I realised that he could be telling the truth for, although not quite so abundant as he had described, the fungi were very plentiful and there were types I had never noticed in England; large white ones, small white ones, and large umbrella types with white gills. They all smelt good and the smaller ones were a little like supermarket mushrooms so I risked eating them. But what about the rest?

In France the local Pharmacist occupies a more prestigious role than his counterpart in Britain. He/she may dispense certain prescription drugs without a doctor being involved and has also been trained to identify certain fungi. The pharmacist will inspect any specimens you may have collected, if possible identify them, and finally pronounce them edible or ‘dangereux’. Knowing this, I took a selection of my finds along to our local Pharmacy only to be told, after much head-shaking, to throw everything away, except the ‘petites roses’ (Agaricus campestris). If in doubt throw it out! – seems to be the rule. Since all the other mushrooms smelt and looked delicious, I resolved to find out exactly what they were and whether they were edible myself. This was the start of my interest in fungi, an interest which continues to cause endless amusement to family and friends alike!

There appears to be only one reason to collect fungi in France and that is to eat them. The French are not sentimental and take a strictly pragmatic view of the natural world around them. Thus, vegetarians are regarded as total cranks and vegetarian dishes do not appear at all on restaurant menus. Although fishing is a national pastime, it’s strictly for the pot. Every three years or so thousands of small, artificial lakes are drained through large sieves, the larger fish being eaten, and the smaller ones used to re-stock the lakes again. The concept of a "sporting chance" does not exist! Every book about fungus, and there are very many of them, is concerned with their ediblity. In the Autumn several magazines appear for mushroom hunters, all of which include recipes. But despite all the literature there are still about 30 deaths per year in France, most of which are attributable to eating the ‘Death Cap’ (Amanita Phalloides).

Over the past three years I have gradually become more attuned to the ways of the local countryside. The following is an account of the 1999 mushroom season which began for me in late August. There were no significant signs of any fungi in Mayenne when we left for a short trip to the South of France and into Italy but on driving through the Eastern Auvergne we saw notices saying ‘Depot de Ceps’ as the road traversed the forest. Here were roadside stalls where Ceps (Boletus edulis) were bought from local collectors to be sold to shops and supermarkets. I had time for only a brief look in the forest but was amazed at the number of different species to be found there as early as the end of August.

On returning to the house in Mayenne, I set about my own ‘Cep hunt’. I’d found the occasional Boletus edulis the previous year but had looked in the beech woods only. This time I went into the coniferous plantations and was amazed to find Ceps in plenty. I was able to collect about 3 kilos in a couple hours from a small plantation tucked inside a larger deciduous forest. There were signs of other collectors there too. Now there are rules about mushroom picking on the continent. These are strictly adhered to and if you are seen to break them, you will be, at best, verbally assailed – and, at worst, physically assaulted. The three main rules are 1) that mushrooms must be of a reasonable size and have had a chance to release their spores; 2) you must cut the stipe so as not to damage the mycelia; and 3) you must carry them in a wicker basket to allow the spores to fall through the holes and aid propagation. I saw two women being so abused for using a plastic shopping bag that they left a popular mushrooming location in tears!

All holidays come to an end and I had only whetted my appetite for more. At the beginning of October we returned for a quick break. I headed for the fields and forests. At this time two years ago I had found Agaricus silvicola growing only 3 metres from the house and although there were none last year we did have a small bolete growing on the garden shed a mere 50 metres away. In the field there were ‘Boule de Neige’ (Agaricus macrosporus) and Agaricus campestris with a small group of huge Macrolepita procera (Parasol mushrooms) close by. Now the same field was full of Macrolepiota gracilenta and also M. mastoidea and I found Shaggy Inkcaps under the apple trees. In the hedge the previous November there had been a large group of Wood Blewits (Lepista nuda). About 100 metres away, in a small valley by a carp pond and under beech and oak trees I always find a good selection of fungi including Boletus edulis, Laccaria amethystea (Amethyst Deceiver) and Amanita muscaria.

At one time, not too long ago, I had never seen Amanita muscaria but last year I saw literally hundreds of them, up to 12 inches in height and with caps as much as nine inches across. In France it is thought they grow in association with Ceps and this seems not too far from the truth. It is not unusual to find a group of A. muscaria with one or more Boletes, often Boletus edulis but also Boletus badius (Bay Bolete) and often other species. In the local woods (sweet chestnut, oak, beech and fir plantations) within 500 metres of the house, I have found Suillus luteus (Slippery Jack), Boletus edulis, badius, and erythropus and a large Boletus satanoides in addition to Leccinum scabrum. Along the verge of a gravel track were other Amanita species, huge Amanita spissa and A. rubescens together with ‘swarms’ of Russula cyanoxantha (Charcoal Burner) which have flexible white gills as opposed to the usual brittle gills of Russula. I have found Agaricus augustus (The Prince) in the bottom of a ditch close by.

On my walks I often come across my old neighbour with his dogs. Albert is 84 and still very active. He speaks the local patois and I can understand only about one word in three….usually he talks about ‘Les Bosch’. It seems - so far as I can make out! – that he was a resistance fighter. If he sees what he thinks is an inedible mushroom he hits it with his stick, hence great swathes of broken, brown mushroom pieces everywhere in the village. He doesn’t seem to realise how efficiently he’s spreading them! He directed me to the local football field which is surrounded by short fir trees and here was a real surprise. It was like a fairytale woodland scene, dark and very humid with huge fruit-bodies of Amanita muscaria growing in rings, Boletus edulis, Boletus badius and what I can only identify as Boletus aureus (known in non- politically-correct France as ‘Tete de Negre’), although I thought that this species was not usually associated with conifers.

When travelling further afield, together with dozens of other Cep hunters I collected Boletus edulis from the Foret d’Andaines which surrounds the local spa town of Bagnoles de l’Orne, a really lovely place. One specimen I found weighed close to a kilo. There must be literally tons of Ceps taken from this forest alone every season, and still they re-appear year after year. Under the deciduous trees in the forest the floor is covered with several species of Amanita, mainly citrina and rubescens but I found at least one Amanita virosa and a small number of Amanita phalloides. There were also numerous ‘Amethyst Deceivers’ which I am assured make a tasty ice cream.

Another local forest, Le Foret d’Ecouves north of Alencon, was completely carpeted with Boletus badius and Cantharellus infundibuliformis (the Girolle) three years ago but last year there was little of anything under the beech and oak. Under the Douglas fir, however, there were masses of Amanita muscaria with Boletus edulis and Gomphidius glutinosus (edible, but the thick jelly like slime is a little off-putting) and also Hydnum repandum (Hedgehog Fungus).

Returning to England was rather a shock. Where are all the Ceps here? I have exhausted my supply of dried mushrooms now but Autumn is close. Will this year be as good as last year, or maybe better. The French believe in the influence of the moon in these matters (this is applied to everything from planting potatoes to making cider) and ‘Le Choc Thermique’ or thermal shock of the first heavy rain after a dry spell. So I am hoping for a long, hot dry summer with some heavy rain at the end of September coinciding with a full moon……along with several hundred thousand Frenchmen, no doubt!

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