There’s far more to a French Marché aux Cèpes than meets the eye.
Ken Dykes explains.
Above: Cèpes, Penny Bun or Boletus Edulis; Below: Marché aux Cèpes, Villefranche du Perigord
Photographs © Akim Benbrahim Office de Tourisme de Sarlat et du Périgord Noir
Over just the last few years it has become highly fashionable to collect the various species of wild fungi that abound in our native British woodlands. But on the European continent they’ve been doing it for centuries.
This first came to my attention during a holiday near the somewhat remote settlement of Villefranche du Perigord in the south of the French region of the Dordogne.
One September, for the umpteenth time, we had rented a gîte in the middle of a chestnut forest a few miles from the town (another practice I can thoroughly recommend for its peace and utter tranquillity).
We were only a couple of miles from all necessary facilities. Villefranche, in common with most small French towns, boasted two bakers, a butcher, fruiterer, grocery store and a visiting fishmonger, as well as a wide choice of restaurants in the town and surrounding area.
And the peace and tranquillity. Paradise!
In Britain wild mushroom gathering tends to be a highly organised sort of pastime. A group is usually led by an expert in the field, ready to identify any potentially dangerous species found.
And yet the French seem to know instinctively what they’re looking for!
One morning while collecting our daily bread (French bread must be purchased daily to be fully appreciated) I noticed a banner adorning the ancient tile-roofed and pillared market hall.
Marché aux Cèpes. Mushroom market.
Not only that, it was open every weekday afternoon from 4pm.
That day I went along at 4pm and was mildly surprised to discover that the ‘market’ consisted of half a dozen or so farmers’ wives, each with a container of some kind, ranging from an open wooden tray to a fresh fern-lined wicker basket, piled with newly-gathered mushrooms.
But what mushrooms! Each woman seemed to have a speciality. The favourites were clearly cèpes de Bordeax (bolitis edulis) usually known in Britain as ‘the penny bun mushroom’.
Then there were one or two with paniers of the small and delicate, trumpet-shaped chanterelle (chantarellus). Also known as the girolle. One lady displayed a tray of black, almost evil-looking morels.
And around the women hung a gathering of restaurateurs, all eager to get into the bartering process for the choicest offerings. Wild mushrooms, especially fresh ones, are apparently an indispensable ingredient in France in a vast array of dishes – from stews to omelettes and these men had come from miles around to secure their treasured share.
Then the bartering began.A complex affair with the women writing their expected price on a small piece of paper. The bidder would then take the paper, write his offer and hand it back. She in turn would amend her price and return it. Another offer. Another amendment. This went on until a satisfactory compromise was reached at which point came a handshake.
Mushrooms and money changed hands without another soul knowing what price had been paid. All the bartering was done in jealously guarded secrecy. Except that I had seen. Wild mushrooms are certainly held in very high esteem by French chefs.
When I saw the wads of banknotes being handed over my eyes lit up. All that cash for a few hours picking a few wild mushrooms!
I quickly calculated that within a very few days I could pay for my entire French holiday! After all I had nothing else to do but laze about in the sun with a drink in my hand waiting for the next delicious meal.
“WILD MUSHROOMS, ESPECIALLY FRESH ONES, ARE AN INDISPENSABLE INGREDIENT IN FRANCE IN A VAST ARRAY OF DISHES”
Ascertaining from my French farmer host that I was fully at liberty to wander about over his land and take as many mushrooms as I could find, I planned my first foray for the following day.
Armed with a basket, which I had found in the gîte, I set off not too early the next morning to seek my fortune.
After more than an hour all I had was a very suspicious-looking mouldy specimen that the farmer’s wife later told me was pas bon, no good.
My quest continued. Several more hours of searching woodland and hedgerow followed. Nothing. I was hot and I was tired. I paused for a breather in a grassy woodland clearing.
Then I saw it.
It was nestling in the grass, virtually between my feet. So close in fact that one more step would have squashed it into oblivion. Unmistakable. A cèpe de bordeaux. Exactly what I had spent all day looking for!
Not a very big one, in fact quite a small one, only about six or seven centimetres in diameter.
Nevertheless it was a wild mushroom. And it was MY wild mushroom.
Gingerly, as instructed by the farmer, I cut off the stem at ground level (they apparently have a theory that cut stems, not pulled ones, will regenerate) and triumphantly marched back to the gîte.
Above left: Girolles; above: mushroom market
Photographs © Tuula Rampont, Belle Provence Travels
Above: Scenes from Villefranche du Perigord. Photographs © Rachel Lewis
My intention had been to demand a small fortune at tomorrow’s marché aux cèpes – but now I was not so sure.
I imagined myself standing in the market, my lonely little mushroom in my hand and the assembled restaurateurs laughing at my pathetic offering. No thanks!
I did go into Villefranche the next day. But instead of heading for the marché aux cèpes, I went to a restaurant in the historic town square. The proprietor of the tiny restaurant, Les Pèlerins, whom we had come to know over several years of visits, seemed a little perplexed when I handed my treasured mushroom to him. He was not in the same league as the market bidders – but gladly accepted my little gift nonetheless.
Unfortunately no money changed hands, and alas I would have to find another way to fund my French holiday. But I had learnt one thing for sure – there was obviously a lot more to this wild mushroom collecting lark than met the eye!
Green Adventures April 2015
WAY TO GO
Getting there: It takes around 10 hours to drive to Villefranche du Perigord from Calais. Driving in France can be a real pleasure, and with many beautiful towns and villages to visit en route, why not spend several days getting there? The RAC has more information about driving in France.
In the area: The region is perfect for walking, cycling and wildlife-spotting - look out for deer and wild boar. Places of interest nearby include the stunning historic town of Monpazier and caves at the breathtaking hilltop town of Domme. Food features strongly in the Dordogne - the region is famous for its gastronomy, and besides cepes you can also savour truffles, duck, goats’ cheese and walnuts - all washed down with some excellent wines from Bergerac or Bordeaux.
Where to stay: The Hotel Restaurant La Bastide is a three star hotel with an outside pool. From 270 Euros for two people for two nights, including dinner and breakfast. To fully enjoy all the delights that the local markets have to offer, though, try a self-catering gite. Owners Direct have a selection, including a beamed village house with glorious views from the private terrace - perfect for meals al fresco. Sleeps six from £445 per week.
More information: See Sarlat Périgord Nord Office de Tourisme for more information about the surrounding area. And for inspiration for using the wonderful array of fresh Dordogne produce - including a recipe for tagliatelles aux girolles - check out The Everyday French Chef.
Ken Dykes is an author, forager and frequent visitor to the Dordogne. He loves all things countryside, French or English. His book Country Capers is a humourous account of a childhood spent in the English countryside during and after the Second World War - when food was scarce and foraging was an important way of life.