Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On the Menu

“The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” wrote Keats and, by golly, I couldn't have put it better myself!
Here in our corner of France it is the time of the vendange and grape picking is in full swing. Sadly, much of this is done by huge machines nowadays but those who were foolish enough to volunteer to go pick them by hand at some time will probably think that this is a jolly good idea. Sounds romantic but it is back breaking hard work, nature having decreed that the vines shall grow at the best height for damaging the human spine. I suppose it all comes from when Noah over-indulged and was caught drunk in charge of an Ark. It was thought that making the things difficult to pick would be a curb on alcoholism. They seriously underestimated man's ingenuity.
But now the morning air is redolent of the grape and, since this time of year coincides with the muck spreading season for the dairy farmers, there is a piquancy about the atmosphere found in few other places in the world.
The French are proud of their earth and its produce – where else would you find restaurants advertising a “Menu de Terroir”? “Menu de Tesco” more like in many places.
And, apart from the visual beauty of autumn, it's also mushroom time. Here the fields are alive with sound of champignon hunters.
I don't mean those anaemic looking emasculated things you see wrapped in plastic at the supermarket but real, “of the earth, earthy” wild mushrooms.
Although I suppose the much vaunted Champignons de Paris were originally cultivated in that city, most of them come now from the Tufa caves of the Loire Valley. Saumur boasts of two mushroom museums, a haven for tourists on wet days, where one can see an incredible variety of specimens, some of them distinctly gruesome looking, lurking in the recesses of the caves.
But nothing compares to the flavour of the wild, open air variety.
And for those who are concerned that by selecting the wrong ones you may send the entire family to perdition, the French have the solution.
You take your haul to the nearest pharmacy and spread them out on the counter for them to approve or reject for you.
It's a free service. And the mushrooms will be delicious.


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