Mushroom hunting, chestnut harvesting

This weekend we were invited on an expedition by a French couple who also live in Pau – the plan was to go mushroom gathering.

But apparently, for relative novices, mushrooms can be incredibly elusive – and we ended up harvesting an entirely different sort of crop than was initially proposed.

We headed out early Sunday morning.  It was a crisp, sunny day – perfect scarf and sweater weather. Six people formed the regiment – the French couple, their twin five-year olds, David and I –  the adults armed with knives, the children with sticks and plastic utensils.

We were warned by a seasoned mushroom hunter that the forest we originally planned to visit was strangely bereft of mushrooms at the moment – so we chose a different part of the woods to stake out.

Once we got out of Pau, the landscape was dappled with cute country cottages, corn fields, and lots and lots of green.

We drove south-west into the Jurançon region, famous for its sweet white wine.  The harvest hasn’t taken place yet, so the vines were still heavy with small golden-green grapes.

After we left the main road, we drove straight through a vineyard until we reached the the hilly edge of a forest.

This particular forest felt airy and expansive because of the height of the trees – oaks, birches and chestnuts, all tall and thin with broad light-green leaves.  It’s the sort of forest where you don’t need a trail; you don’t have to fight through underbrush and can wander as you like.

The forest was very still – we barely even heard the sounds of bird.  The only animals we saw were slugs.

Finding mushrooms on a mushroom hunting expedition is apparently not a given.  Mushroom hunting requires extensive knowledge of what is edible and what should be avoided.  It is also an art of tracking – many factors affect the abundance of mushrooms, and people who spend every fall in the forest develop a kind of sixth sense about where precisely to look.

We apparently did not have this sixth sense.  While we didn’t completely fail at finding mushrooms, we never found any of the varieties that we were sure were safe to eat.

We did find a kind of seed that our friends told us peasants had traditionally gathered and eaten in times of famine.  I thought they were pretty good.

Once we realized we really weren’t going to be successful at our initial objective, finding mushrooms, we turned our attention to gathering something else that WAS abundant in this forest – chestnuts.

This is the sort of location I associate with roasted chestnuts

I usually associate chestnuts with long walks on cold city streets.  Although I’d always heard reference to them in that one Christmas song, my first experience with roasted chestnuts was on a biting November day in New York City.  I was 17 and it was my first time in New York.  My father and I had been spending time wandering around the city when we stopped in front of a rather miserably cold looking chestnut vendor and handed him two dollars.

I found roasted chestnuts were perfectly satisfying after a long, cold day and I have loved them as a cold-season delicacy ever since. I even roast them myself in our fireplace in California at Christmas time.

But strangely, I never thought about where they came from beyond the street corners where I purchased them.

It turns out chestnuts fall from very tall, leafy trees, encased in what look like miniature neon green hedgehogs.  The green hedgehogs slowly mature to brown and eventually split open, releasing the chestnuts to the earth as seeds.

The alternative is for humans armed with knives to split them open and carry them home for roasting on open fires (or in their ovens, as the case may be).

Chestnut harvesting is tricky business – not for the faint of heart.  It’s not unlike trying to break something out of a cactus – wounds of war are inevitable.  But we were in brave company and after a few hours we had several sacks of freshly harvested chestnuts to show for our time.

It was so sweetly satisfying to head home with a full bag of something edible that was not bought at the market, but gathered in a forest – a feeling that is too easy to forget when you live in a city. It’s so important, now and again, to take the time to go back to the origin of things.

Napoli enjoying the fresh forest smell of the chestnuts drying in the sun

~ by zoetropic on September 27, 2010.

11 Responses to “Mushroom hunting, chestnut harvesting”

  1. How totally exciting and refreshing to read about your hunting in the forest – hunting for mushrooms and then chestnuts. Very interesting to your grandma as her own parents when living in Tuscany and later when they came to the states were pros at this kind of hunting. I can remember when we were children there were times when we went mushroom hunting with mom and dad. And chestnuts were just part of our expected food, especially if they had been discovered in the woods. And after all, northern Italy is not that far from Southern France, right? And they brought their hunting skills with them when they came from “the old country” as mom lovingly called Tuscany (near Florence) Italy. Thanks for bringing all that back to me.

  2. That is a beautiful response to a beautiful post. In turn, Rosejean, your post reminded me of some of the earliest memories in my life, having to do with mushrooming with grandaddy. He was good at it and knew how to identify the various sorts, so nobody died!

    I love the photos, I love realizing from Rosejean’s memories how much closer to the land we once were — enough so that hunting for mushrooms and chestnuts was something one did to put food on the table. Wonderful generational twists on our love for woodsy foods! It fits for me right in with all the berry hunting in Alaska. ah — that”gathering” skill is not one you give up lightly. I still remember picking berries in Alaska as though it were yesterday, and not 20 years ago. I fell asleep more than once and there were hundreds of i’s and o
    s in a row — so the browser is a little messed up — so I will close with heart’s love for both of you!

  3. PS: I just realized upon re-reading that the transition there may have been a bit rough. I segued from berry picking in Alaska to speaking about falling asleep in the middle of writing this, which I just did again. whew; I’d better stop before I make another mistake. xoxo

  4. And what a wonderful taste those chestnuts have!!! Congratulations for such a wonderful blog. I hope you continue bringing us stories from different parts of the world and your impressions from those places, descriptions and conections not evident for the rest of us! Love desde la casa!

  5. Were you at Paradise? Great pictures, great blog, wonderful writing!!

  6. Those be beechnuts – what you gathered before the chestnuts. I don’t know why, but the ancients seem to have preferred acorns over them, though they certainly ate beechnuts when they needed to.

    • Thanks Mark – I was hoping someone out there would know what they were! I thought they were quite nice and don’t understand why they are snubbed.

  7. […] Mushroom Hunting, Chestnut Harvesting (in a forest in the south of France) https://zoetropic.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/mushroom-hunting-chestnut-harvesting/ Ghost Hike:  An adventure in the Pyrenees […]

  8. Aw, this was an incredibly good post. Taking the time and
    actual effort to generate a great article… but what can I say… I procrastinate
    a lot and don’t manage to get anything done.

    • Aww, thank you so much! But as you can see, I haven’t even written a blog post here for a month and a half – mainly because of procrastinating and not getting anything done – so we’re in the same boat 😉 I keep telling myself “tomorrow” or “next week.” Hopefully one of these days soon that will be true

  9. Reblogged this on How 2 Be Green and commented:
    Fabulous Post. Thank you for sharing!

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