Wild mushrooms are a bit of an enigma. They’re strange looking things and it’s not hard to imagine how they came to be aligned with fairies and magical other-worlds – though I’m certain the psychedelic varieties out there have played due part in this association. But I find the pastime of hunting for them just as intriguing. It is largely a solo activity (prized spots are fiercely guarded secrets) and with the diversity of varieties and the associated danger of making a mistake in identification, it is an activity that I’ve always appreciated demands knowledge.
While winter in the Alps provides us with a playground for hedonistic pleasure, in the summer the forests and pastures around Verbier are ripe for foraging ideal for creating at least a sense of sustainable living. Berries, nuts and mushrooms grow in abundance. While I’ve looked for mushrooms before, as a side-event while out for a walk, I’ve never (until recently) gone for a walk with the intent purpose of mushrooming.
Chanterelles are in their peak season at the moment. I’m informed that they thrive on the humidity. As is typical in the southern Swiss Alps at this time of year, we have had some good weather, high humidity and plenty of late afternoon/evening thunderstorms that finally break the shackles of a hot day. These golden delights love the abundance of moisture and warm climate providing ideal growing conditions!
So when a good friend and avid mushroomer offered to take me, I jumped at the chance. Of course, he didn’t take me to his prized spots, apparently there isn’t anything there at the moment (not surprising given the volume of chanterelles I’ve seen him harvest recently, though I’m not discounting that he is simply protecting his turf – rightly so).
Instead we headed a little further up the Val de Bagnes, the exact location I cannot reveal as I have been ‘sworn to secrecy’, where we struck gold! Coming home with a good harvest is certainly satisfying but there are a couple of other things about the hunt that I thoroughly enjoyed.
1) Wandering through the forest looking for mushrooms is much like ski touring in the winter. You feel that much more atune with the landscape around you. Mountains are so vast that when you scan them from afar you don’t notice the intricacies of the features within them. But when you move through them, on foot or on skis, the pitch of the slope, gulleys and rock bands all become prevalent.
2) The slopes are steep, and the forest thick. It isn’t a bad way to get some exercise!
3) The hunt itself. Spotting that first chantarelle (as a novice the distinctive golden chanterelles are a great first target) makes your heart jump. Stumbling on a patch is truly joyous. And knowing that a good patch of chanterelles is a place that you can come back to time-and-again just accentuates the pleasure of the first discovery.
4) It must be the hippy in me, but I love eating what I’ve grown, and now I can add, foraged for. Inspired by the hunt, at home we pulled out the pasta machine and made our own pasta, and with the chanterelles and some fine bacon from the valley, whipped up an Alfredo to die for.
5) Finally, chanterelles are worth their weight in gold. About half a kilogram of chanterelles for a couple of hours of effort versus the cost of purchasing them from the grocery store. No comparison.
I’ll be out there again. The question is whether to go looking for new patches, or back to the spot where I know there are an abundance of chanterelle patches?
Photographs by Barry Cox.
NOTE: If you are new to wild mushrooms, make sure you seek the advice of someone who has experience, or at the least refer to literature (there are many guide books out there). Many species of mushroom can make you sick, and in the worst case, can kill.