“One of the nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”
– Wall Art, Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam
I’ve always had this mental image of Europeans: elegant, couture-clad and graceful, eating at the best restaurants, driving little miniature sports cars along winding roads in Italy, drinking only the best wine, enjoying the opera and museums of glittering European cities.
That image is true – to an extent. But Europeans are also very connected to nature. At least, the Dutch and the Belgians I’ve gotten to know are! Farmers, hikers, campers. The Dutch love packing a car up and going camping in a tent. Especially if that tent is pitched in Norway or Arizona or Brazil! The Belgian school system has a mandatory component of nature survival camps for both boys and girls throughout middle and high school. Their idea of a great vacation is a fire pit in the woods.
The Dutch and Belgians know about where to pick berries in the wild to make jam with. They know the best walking paths They take the time to shop and eat vegetables and fruits that are seasonal. Even the cut of your steak – or whether you are having steak! – is seasonal.
And that goes for mushroom picking as well! I’ve never met so many people who could not only identify the types of mushrooms from the risotto plate in front of them… but also could identify them when walking in the woods!
The Ardennes forest in Belgium is a magical mushroom hunting ground… chanterelles, bolete mushrooms, morels, and things with names like “hen of the woods.” And the much sought after Cauliflower Fungus or “Sponge.” I sort of expect Hagrid to come walking through those woods and demand that those “hens of the woods” go to the Hogwarts kitchen! A simple walk in the woods demands taking along a basket because you are guaranteed to come back with SOMETHING. Mushrooms would be best – but wild strawberries, wild blackberries, wild blueberries, apples, plums, mirabelle plums – are all possibilities as well! (And did I mention the chanterelles are the size of lilies!!!!!!)
My dad is a real expert in mushroom hunting in the Ardennes. He has been doing it for almost 20 years – and in his brilliant doctor surgeon way, he not only knows the common name, but the Latin name, and the details of the species. He has made mushroom hunting a science. He knows which patches of the woods will meet the microclimate requirements for growing chanterelles and which patches will be perfect for sponges. He has special baskets to carry the picked mushrooms in so that they do not crush or bruise, and mushroom hunting knives – little pocket knives with a cycle-shaped blade and a brush on the end to clean off the specimens before placing them in the basket.
But the best part – the eating. We have to stop and take the time to eat:)
Despite a wet and rainy summer, the temperatures in the last few weeks have been perfect for mushroom picking. And so our baskets have been overflowing! You may have all your grocery shopping done and the meals planned for the day, but your discovery in the woods will wipe the kitchen board clean and determine your dinner plans. We picked so many mushrooms that we had to prepare them for drying! (And what a cool idea… to eat in the middle of the winter a mushroom risotto made with the yield of our own hard work!)
So let me share some of the tasty recipes:
– In a pot or deep pan, olive oil, garlic and shallots, brown the chopped chanterelles and pied de moutons. Flavor to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. (Use enough mushrooms to end with at least a cup when browned.
– Set the mushroom mixture aside.
– Take 2 cups of risotto rice and pour into the same pot or pan you had used to brown the mushrooms. Add 2 cups of chicken bouillon and cook slowly until all the bouillon is absorbed. Make sure to stir frequently.
– Add the mushroom mixture to risotto and sprinkle shaved parmesan cheese over the top.
Sponges (Cauliflower Mushrooms):
(These mushrooms have a heavy consistency – it’s like eating veal! Very filling, so a great starter, but add a salad and you have a main course!)
– Cut the sponge in slices (handle carefully – they tend to be fragile)
– Fine chop celery, bacon, garlic and shallots in a mixer/blender
– Take the celery mixture and pat into the mushroom slices on each side (the small pieces will stick into the spongy holes)
– Break two eggs into a bowl and pour a 1/2 cup of flour into a separate bowl
– Take the mushroom slices and dip both sides in the egg, then into the flour
– In a large pan, pre-heat olive oil and place the slices in the oil (2 to 3 minutes each side or until crunchy brown)
My time here has taught me to slow down, enjoy the bounty of the woods, and eat :)