Sometimes, the best meals start without a recipe but with a question – what is in season? Four weeks ago this Saturday, the weekly outdoor market in Albi was an autumnal cornucopia: butternut squash, pumpkins, gourds, and plastic ‘barquettes’ filled with pieds de moutons, girolles and ceps. Girolles are two a penny at this time of year, ceps cost a small fortune, but pieds de mouton rarely make an appearance – I was tempted but saw the price. €5 euros for a small barquette. Far too expensive!
Pieds de mouton (literal translation, ‘Sheeps Feet’ or, as they are known in English, ‘Wood Hedgehogs’) always transport me to the forests of Lacaune which is where I first discovered them on a hunt for ‘ceps’ with Monsieur R. back in 2009. It was perfect ‘mushroom’ country, with an underwood of tall beeches where wild box and holly jostled for space, and dark streams splashed their way down over red-marbled rocks to the river below. Scrambling across a small brook, I discovered a colony of pieds de mouton on the opposite bank. In the half-light of the forest, they looked like sunlight solidified against the dark earth with their flat yellow parasols. Monsieur assured me they were edible. Easy to identify with their curious fringed undersides, they have since become one of my favourite mushrooms.
So the temptation of the small ‘barquette’ of pieds de mouton at €5 euros was too much for me – I succumbed. What amused me was that the price didn’t include the plastic ‘barquette’! The parsimonious stall-holder tipped my mushrooms into a paper bag. I liked that – a reminder that everything has a value and can be re-used. Back in my kitchen, I decided to stick to the basic Tarnais formula: ‘un peu d’ail, un peu de persil, un peu de l’huile’ – except with the addition at the end, of some cream, and at the beginning, some finely chopped shallots that were in danger of going to waste at the bottom of my vegetable basket.
I chopped the purple shallots and wept – so much more pungent and stinging to the eyes than the common onion. I sliced and chopped the pink Lautrec garlic – so sticky on the fingers. Both processes entailed a constant rinsing of fingers. A smallish pan, a mix of butter and oil to almost smoking, then in went the allium family, tossed, turned, plus a lid for good measure over a low heat.
The mushrooms, surprisingly hard and firm, needed brushing (to get rid of dried leaves), and their bases slicing (to get rid of earth). I added them in thick chunky slices to the simmering shallots and garlic. Again the lid to sweat them all, whilst I chopped a large handful of the flat-leaf parsley, added in with the cream.
I stirred, tasted, added pepper and some salt. Simmered again. Stirred again. Tasted again – not cooked enough. In improvisation-mode, I added two ladles of some home-made chicken stock for fear the cream would disappear before the mushrooms were cooked and left them to simmer. But… in the midst of all this I had an idea for the book I’m working on and had to write it down. Words tumbled onto a blank page – and I forgot the pan simmering on the stove…
When I returned, all was on the point of disaster! The shallots were darkening and caramelising, the cream had long disappeared, leaving a buttery shimmer, the mushrooms were toasting brown. At least the parsley was still vaguely green. I tipped everything onto a plate, carefully avoiding scraping the edges that were heading towards burnt… Panic over! A glass of wine, a browse through the front pages of the newspaper, just time enough to let it all cool.
Then I scooped up the mushrooms with a chunk of bread and a fork and realised that sometimes, culinary accidents are a good thing. I so much preferred the mushrooms with the cream ‘réduit’. No thick creamy sauce – just the intense perfumed taste of the ‘pieds de mouton’, mingling with the garlic. I closed my eyes and disappeared into the forest.
But right now, I’m not in France, I’m in Dalston, dog-sitting for my FoodWiseWomen friend, Judi, whilst she explores the culinary coconut-flavoured delights of Sri Lanka – and I’m feeling homesick for Albi and its wonderful market. The aisles of Tesco and Sainsbury’s somehow don’t do it for me, but a box of large field mushrooms reminded me of my pieds de mouton and I found myself back in Judi’s kitchen trying to recreate a little plate of champignon nostalgia.
This time, I decided on a quintessentially English version – Mushrooms on Toast, but surprisingly similar to my French recipe. What makes it ‘so British’, as my French friends would say, is the slosh of dry sherry added during the final minutes of cooking.
Mushrooms on Toast – enough for two people as a light lunch or supper, Preparation/cooking time – 15 minutes
8 large field mushrooms, brushed and cleaned
unsalted butter – have a pack to hand and use as much as you need
a large handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 tbsps thick double cream
a good slosh of dry fino sherry (plus a glass for the cook)
a pinch of sea salt
black pepper to taste
A crusty loaf of rye bread – two large slices per person, toasted and buttered just before serving.
You’ll also need a large frying pan with a well-fitting lid (essential!)
Slice each mushroom into fairly thick slices. Heat the pan on medium to high and add a small chunk of butter to the pan. Add the mushrooms, put the lid on, and turn down the heat.
The metamorphosis of mushrooms is what you’re after – they will sit there, dry and firm, soaking up every bit of butter you add, so the trick is to do it slowly, adding small nuggets of butter when the pan becomes too dry and capturing all the mushroom ‘juice’ by way of the lid as they slowly sweat it out. Eventually, the balance tips the other way, and the mushrooms will start to simmer in their own juice. Turn up the heat slightly and then add a good slosh of sherry to the pan, along with the parsley, salt, and pepper. When the liquid has reduced slightly, add the cream. Keep it on a medium heat until the creamy sauce bubbles and begins to thicken.
Whilst they’re cooking, toast the bread, butter it (unsalted) and place two slices on each plate. Divide the mushrooms between the two plates and pour the sauce over.
Enjoy with either a glass of sherry (which I did) or a glass of light red wine. My verdict on the field mushrooms – not as rich-tasting as the pieds de mouton but certainly a good alternative.
Footnote: The British are always a little wary of mushrooms, but with a good book and a few accompanied walks with someone who knows their mushrooms (as opposed to their onions), you can soon be confident of finding a lot of edible mushrooms whichever side of the Channel you’re on. I learned using the brilliant book by Roger Phillips, but have just discovered it’s now available as an app (even better for mushroom hunting!). As for the names of mushrooms, it’s always safest to check the Latin name as well as the more common names.