There are over 3,000 different varieties of mushrooms in France and mushroom-picking is a wildly practised activity for families and individuals alike. It’s hugely satisfying to be able to forage for food yourself and then prepare a wonderful meal. The most prized funghi is the truffle, which can sell for huge amounts of money and is usually shipped to the best French restaurants as soon as it is picked.
Of the 3,000 varieties, only a few types are edible and you need to know which to steer clear of. Some can be bitter, some can make you sick and, in the worst cases, they can poison you. If you cannot identify it, do not eat it. Local pharmacists are able to help you identify edible mushrooms free of charge, if you take them in after picking. Some of the most loved are girolles, chanterelles, cèpes, bolets, morilles and, of course, the truffle. Check out the online reference here. It’s also advisable to make sure that you always pick a whole mushroom (so that you can properly identify it), never pick it from industrial ground (where it may have come into contact with pollutants) and always take a photo before cooking (so that if anything goes wrong, people can identify it at the hospital if you get sick!). If you have doubts about any mushroom, don’t even put it in your basket as it can contaminate all the others. There are anti-poison centres around France, which you can contact in case of trouble.
There are specific government regulations regarding mushroom picking. You must carry your mushrooms in a wicker basket (plastic bags ferment and damage the mushrooms), they must be picked only when they are a certain size and they must only be cut with a special knife with a curved blade. What’s more, you must always leave some of the mushroom behind (cut them so that you leave the stem and spores in the ground) so that they can regrow the following year (if you find truffles, you must put some of it back in the ground for the same reason). You must also make sure that you are not on private property, which is obviously forbidden. If you can speak French, check out the government guidelines here. You can pick mushrooms on any public land and if you’re unsure, check with the local mairie (town hall).
Most people brush them with a cloth – the key is not to allow too much moisture into the mushroom before cooking. If you do wash them, allow them to dry for a few hours before putting them in your favourite risotto, sauce and soup recipes (it gives a nutty flavour). Remove the pores from under the mushroom cap before cooking and you’ll get a better result when you cook them in smaller batches with less moisture.
Mushrooms are seasonal and in France, they are most likelyto appear from mid-August to mid-September. The best weather to pick mushrooms in is after rain, followed by sunshine (as fresh mushrooms might have grown overnight). Mushroom-picking can get very competitive, so no one will usually divulge the good spots! For truffles, you should definitely head to the south-west France. For all other mushrooms, explore the public forests. A good indication of whether there are any mushrooms nesting inside will be the number of cars parked on the forest edge; you might find that others have got there before you!