Into the forest in search of the wild cèpe

When I agreed to pick mushrooms with Serge François, the executive chef for the Hôtel L'Horloge in the village of Auvillar, I would not have suspected I'd find myself hurtling through the French countryside in an old Audi. I had no idea where we were headed, and it seemed that Serge and Jerome, his sommelier and assistant, weren't quite sure either.

Auvillar sits on a bluff overlooking Garonne River in the south of France, two hours north of the Pyrenees and the border with Spain. It's an old town filled with chestnut trees, stone buildings, and a circular covered market constructed with massive stone pillars. The rolling hills around the town are filled with apple orchards, grain fields, and patches of dense woodlands, punctuated only by farmhouses.

After a few wrong turns, we arrived at one of those farmhouses, kicking up a cloud of dust that sent a variety of farm animals scurrying in panic.

In the midst of all this chaos, I began to sense that this trip was about more than just finding wild mushrooms.

We were met by Sarcelle, the owner of the farm. He's a wiry man with a vise grip of a handshake. He takes great pride in his farm and the quality of his livestock, and his produce reflects that care.

With a flourish of secrecy, Sarcelle prepared to take us to his mushroom patch deep in the forest. First, he gave each of us a small, sharp knife and a large wicker basket lined with newspaper.

The object of our hunt: cèpes.

Cèpes(botanical name: Boletus edulis) are known as porcini mushrooms in Italy and Steinpilzen in Germany. Because chefs around the world consider the cèpe to be one of the finest wild mushrooms, it has become highly sought after throughout Europe.

But no one has yet succeeded in commercially cultivating these mushrooms. As a result, avid mushroom hunters, willing to walk miles into the forest and deal with insects and poison ivy, have helped make the cèpe a prized - but increasingly rare - find. Patches of forest where these mushrooms are known to grow are well-guarded secrets - sometimes protected by a shotgun filled with salt.

We walked carefully. Although the cèpes are large, often growing to a diameter of 3-1/2 inches in a matter of days, they are well- camouflaged in the forest undergrowth. It's easy to walk right past them, or worse, crush them underfoot.

As we discovered the mushrooms, we used our knives to cut them as close to the ground as possible and to trim dirt and debris from their base. It was raining lightly, and the earthy scent of the forest mingled with the rich, organic scent of the freshly cut cèpes.

After two hours of foraging in the forest we had collected several pounds of cèpes.

Then we returned to the farm, where Serge and Sarcelle weighed out and agreed on the price of the mushrooms.

For both men, this was serious business. The conviviality we shared in the forest disappeared as the process of weighing and bartering over the price of the cèpes unfolded. At first, there was tension in the air and quiet but firm disagreement. After several minutes of furious calculations, there was an exchange of money, handshakes, and laughs all around.

In the end, it was hard to know exactly how much the cèpes cost, but everyone was pleased with the result. We loaded them into the Audi, bid our farewells, and headed back to town.

We returned to the L'Horloge where Serge prepared some of the cèpes for an early lunch with his staff and family. He cleaned the mushrooms well, and sautéed them in butter with shallots, parsley, and white wine. The mushrooms were served simply, although they usually accompany the local specialty of foie gras.

Later, I was invited back to Sarcelle's farm to have a more traditional preparation of the cèpe. He built a fire of wood and dried cornhusks, and grilled the mushrooms along with some pork. This process gave the cèpes a delicate, smoky sweetness that complemented their earthy taste and also the flavor of the pork.

But there's more to this mushroom than its delicate taste. It's also a symbol of the link to the land for farmers such as Sarcelle and for chefs like Serge. In this part of France, I learned, a connection to the land is always present, always visible, and always honored.

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