I was once told that some cultures love mushrooms and others are mushroom haters. France falls on the love side, it is a country of mycophiles if there ever was one. Mushroom foraging is such a popular hobby that French pharmacists are trained in mushroom identification (though in these days of big chains, the training has become less de rigueur): you can take your freshly foraged mushrooms to most small pharmacies in France to have the pharmacist double check that you haven’t accidentally collected any poisonous ones because, of course, mushrooms can be deadly. They can also be extremely delicious.
Truffles, chanterelles, matsutaki… morels. Delicious.
Dried mushrooms make a great souvenir from France because they are available in almost every supermarket and are light and easy to pack. (You may recall that I pictured a jar of dried ceps in my article on eggs a while back.) The “Lisa & Francis” favorites list includes: morels, ceps and trompettes de mort.
Mushrooms possess an umami taste that is unique in the vegetable “kingdom” which is why they are often offered as the vegetarian alternative to meat (for example: the portabella “burger”). Umami is the fifth taste that we can experience on our palate along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty. The words “taste” and “flavor” are often used interchangeably but they are in fact two very different things. Flavors come from the aromas of foods and are experienced through our nose, which is why children hold their noses when eating something they dislike and why you can’t “taste” your glass of wine when your allergies have your nose stuffed up. Umami is the savory taste that you find in meats and fermented foods like cheese or soy sauce. That hearty taste combined with the unique flavors of each kind of mushroom is what makes mycophiles love their mushrooms. The aromatic flavors are often described as “earthy” or “woodsy” like the forest floor from which they emerge.
Morels tend to grow on the edges of forests and in burned out areas. I’ve stumbled upon them by chance in California and Southern Ontario: they grow around the world in places as far flung as the Himalayas. Personally, I particularly associate them with the Franche-Comte, the region where husband was born and where I based Sojourner Tours’ French-Swiss Borderland Sojourns. Every year, when we return to France, my father-in-law makes his special dish: chicken in a vin-jaune-morel-cream sauce. It is luscious: the rich creamy sauce is the perfect accent to the chicken because of the earthiness of the mushrooms and the nuttiness from the wine.
Morels are a treasure. They are among the most prized mushrooms you can gather. They are a bit hard to spot, the surface of the cap looks a bit like honeycomb drawn in a giraffe-like pattern which camouflages them perfectly amidst the dead leaves and little twigs that scatter across the forest floor (You can see two large morel sculptures in the picture of a mountaintop chalet where Sojourner Tours’ takes guests when visiting the French-Swiss Borderland). I am told that morels will grow year after year in the same spot and once a mushroom hunter has found a good spot it becomes a tightly guarded family secret, as is typical of all the foragers I’ve known (just try asking a Canadian where they pick wild blueberries!). Morels are difficult to cultivate, so they are a gourmet treat and relatively expensive to buy.
Another favorite morel recipe in France is the Croûte aux morilles which is a simple recipe that consists serving the sauteed mushrooms in their juice on crusty bread. (For those of you who speak French, you can check out this video from when the show Les Carnets de Julie visited the Franche-Comte to see the recipe.)
But there is no need to go to much trouble with these mushrooms. Morels are particularly delicious just sauteed in butter.
(My supply ran out months ago. Luckily I’m headed back to France soon!)