In Paris last week I took a photo of a basket of girolles – what we call chanterelles – outside a vegetable shop.
Mostly for the price tag, which said 9.95 per kilo. Cripes, I thought, we pay – well, I won’t say, but it’s more than three times that. Admittedly the tag also had the telling word ‘import’ and the mushrooms were full of grit and a little dry around the edges. The purchasing manager voice in me said ‘show that to Mary Mushrooms when you get back to Ireland. The better part of me answered ‘don’t you dare’.
For three years now we’ve been getting an amazing supply of chanterelles from said Mary. Mushrooms isn’t her real surname, it’s just what the chefs use when they ask when the next delivery is due. There’s a fine honour in earning a name associated with your trade. I wouldn’t mind being called Dinny Veg, but it was allocated years ago to the man who has been selling vegetables in the square in Macroom for as long as I can remember.
Mary delivers about 5kg a week of chanterelles so fresh and pristine you’d swear they’d been plucked from a hydroponic tunnel that morning. Clean as whistles, moist and soft, scented with the unique hint of apricot that lingers for only a day or two. I know the general area they come from but nothing about the specifics, other than occasional descriptions from Mary about the difficult terrain she and her son ramble through in their foraging.
I wrote in my last book about my efforts to find a forager willing to take me out on a hunt, but my occasional pleas to Mary were treated with the justifiable evasiveness of someone who has invested years in researching and mental mapping of woods and forests. Finally, long after I’d stopped asking, she suggested a few weeks ago that I join her on a trip to one of the woods. I think it might have been after I had raised an eyebrow at a price increase, and I suspected it was to show me, not where the mushrooms grew, but the scarcity of them, the terrain involved and just how it is they are delivered in that pristine state. But never mind the motivation, this was an exciting opportunity.
She joked about having to blindfold me on the way to the wood, but there would have been no need. Even someone with a functioning sense of direction in the countryside, which I don’t have, would have lost count of the turns and unsigned intersections on the increasingly narrow roads we travelled, before pulling into a gap by a half collapsed five bar gate. A very weird cow stood on the road in front of us – definitely a cow, as in the beast had teats, but it was a brown, skinny thing of a breed usually bred for meat, and it had horns. Before I could grab my camera, it ambled off to the left, through a tiny gap in the trees and into the forest. Jesus, I thought, who farms animals way up here in a forest at the base of a mountain? Where the hell am I anyway?
That’s another story, really. There’s something deeply touching about coming through forest and into small, marshy fields lined with moss-covered stone walls miles from a road, as we did today and as I have done before in woods near Macroom. It’s like wandering into the past or a forgotten place where farming is primal and intertwined with the wild.
Getting back to our mission, we crawled under a wire fence, made our way over the stepping stones of a stream and climbed up the banks of forest. Almost immediately, we came across a few mushrooms, precariously growing in the half-dead undergrowth. I wasn’t sure we could reach down to them but Mary, no spring chicken, she won’t mind me saying, clambered down and started snipping. I followed, trying to adjust my mindset to the reality of the challenging conditions from the stroll in the woods I had imagined.
On we went, struggling sideways along the ravine and stopping to collect mushrooms where we could. Another difference to previous mushroom hunts was clearly obvious. Unlike an organised fun day out where you collect everything and bring it back for analysis, we were ignoring everything in our hunt for chanterelles. I had to stop myself seeing all the types of mushrooms in view and focus on the little golden jewels. It really simplifies the thing. Instead of wondering what might be edible here, you look only for the type you’ve come for.
Over two and a half hours and covering about twenty acres of wood, we arrived back where we started with over 4kg of chanterelles. I lost sight of my guide only once, when we diverted to search for ceps and I got distracted by the primitive beauty of the place I was in. Just as I began to wonder how the hell I would ever get out of here if left behind, I caught a glimpse of white moving through the trees and hurried to catch up.
So I’d learned two things by now – well, loads really, but two relevant ones. Chanterelles are hard to find and even when you spot them they might be out of reach or not good enough to use. And as for their condition, well, they grow in forests at the base of trees, where the ground is covered with dead leaves, twigs and moss. Clean they are not. So how come we get baskets of pristine ones every week? Simple, Mary’s son spends hours brushing each one meticulously and rejecting any imperfect specimens before weighing the ones fit for sale.
Given that the harvest we collected today was very generously to be mine without payment, I brought them back to Paradiso as they were – dirty.
Not being equipped with a specialist mushroom brush, I set about them with a pastry brush, a paring knife and my toothbrush (medium, if you must know). Three hours later, I had reduced my 4kg haul to 2.5kg of clean mushrooms fit to serve. Mission accomplished for me and for Mary too – I had learned the real value of clean, fresh local chanterelles – priceless.