France: Cèpes

Bountiful cèpes in the Chablis market in 2015

It sucks that circumstances did not allow us to take Wanderlust out for unfettered cruising. Our intent when we had Wanderlust built was to have a movable base to explore Europe. Though for the time being the freely movable part was out, at least we had a base in France.

As an upside the unplanned stationary time gave us an opportunity to more fully experience France’s culinary pleasures. With frequent trips to the markets we’ve learned a lot about the ingredients that go into French food. Included in our “discoveries” is a newfound appreciation for the pleasures of the cèpe mushroom.

Cèpes for dinner

Our love affair with French cèpes confusingly began in Italy. In a restaurant in Matera Italy we were served a simple pasta dish that featured porcini mushrooms. Porcini were fresh in the markets at the time. Until this meal, we never much understood the hype about porcini. All the ones we have had in the States were better than average mushrooms but had no great strong distinguishing flavor. They were good and distinctive but not worthy of a full-blown fungi fetish.

In Matera, we learned that we had been completely wrong about porcini. The porcini we ate were rich and savory with an intensely earthy mushroom flavor. What we had before only hinted at what a good porcini tastes like. This was the real thing. Ever since we have sought out porcini at every opportunity with the hope of recreating our Matera gastronomic ecstasy. Mostly we’ve been disappointed.

Things changed in the autumn of 2015. We were in Auxerre France at the time. At the local markets in Auxerre and Chablis there were bins overflowing with fresh cèpes. The abundance lasted for months. At the moment we thought the cèpes looked like porcini; in fact they are the same. We learned later Cèpe is the French name for Boletus edulis, the scientific name of porcini. Aside from the terroir, cèpes and porcini are basically the same fungus. And like porcini, cèpes are foraged in the wild; their supply depends on factors not entirely under human control.

Wanderlust’s mooring in Saint Jean de Losne France

Wanderlust in Seurre France

Once we had the mushrooms back in the kitchen we learned that in season the best French cèpes are every bit as tasty as the porcini we had for that one dish in Matera years before. Having discovered the pleasures of cèpes our diet included these mushrooms at least three nights a week, as long as the supply lasted.

Our 2015 cèpe revelation has had us anticipating their return to the market each autumn in France. Unfortunately, for reasons we don’t fully understand, cèpes don’t reliably appear every year. In 2016, there weren’t many cèpes in the markets at all. And the ones that were there weren’t very good, even by our uninformed palate.

At first we thought that 2017 would be a good year for cèpes. Like 2015, 2017 was a hot and dry summer in France. And like 2015 the bins of cèpes appeared in the markets at the start of the season. It seemed for a moment that our diet would once again include an overabundance of these free-range delicacies. But we were quickly disappointed. The bins disappeared soon after they arrived and the mushrooms that did appear were not the best.

Past what conditions favor a good season there’s obviously much more for us to learn about cèpes.

In Spain there is no better…

While shopping at a supermarché, another customer was speaking disparagingly to his wife about the quality of the cèpes in the bin. I gathered that they were too dry, from the north, and possibly had voted incorrectly in the latest election. And thus these mushrooms were not good at all. They certainly were not worth purchasing by any sane person.

Nevertheless, even after hearing the man’s extended list of fungal grievances, I was unable to avoid the temptation and bagged a pair of cèpes, completely unable to resist the temptation to try them. I couldn’t even be bothered to wait until the other customer left before I put my culinary faux pas on display.

As I lifted my catch from the bin and headed to the scale to weigh and tag the sac for the checkout counter, the French man muttered to me in French about my mistake. I didn’t understand the French very well but his point was well communicated. He could not believe that there could be naïve customers such as myself with so little knowledge of what constitutes a reasonable cèpe that these pathetic fungi on display at the local Casino would find a purchaser. Though in desperation I was willing to lower my cèpe bar, he was not. He could wait for a better year.

And in truth, the substandard politically incorrect supermarket cèpes weren’t at all bad. They weren’t as good as the best cèpes we’ve had, but I’d be delighted to regularly have these in the States.

A few days later I was drawn like a moth to a flame to another bin of cèpes at the expansive open air Provencal market in Valence. This time I watched as a lady sorted through the entire bin of cèpes rejecting 98.7% of the mushrooms on offer. Eventually, after repeatedly examining every mushroom in the bin, she snagged her carefully chosen two. I followed, selecting a large, reasonably dense cèpe that the woman had just discarded. It might not have been the best cèpe, but it was certainly good enough for me. My rejected mushroom was a more than adequate remedy for our Boletus edulis cravings, at least for a couple of hours.

This all goes to show me that like many French foods, I still have much to learn. Perhaps in a few years I will be expert at buying cèpes. Until then there will undoubtedly be many less than perfect attempts to find and select the best ones. It may be difficult to learn how to pick out the best possible cèpe but it’s hardly a hardship doing the research.

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