Mushroom hunting, chestnut harvesting
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.
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.
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.