Friday, April 9, 2010

Wild Asparagus and Morille Mushrooms

That time of year again. I love collecting the slim, slightly bitter wild asparagus spears that grow in Provence. You soon develop an eye for them, spotting the tangle of spiky, bottle-green asparagus plant and then, off to one side, an elegant spear. Takes time to find and collect them though so no wonder they only turn up occasionally in the local market and cost quite a bit.

They're lovely with a dorade royale, lightly steamed and with an olive oil vinaigrette. Even nicer that the spears come from the foot of the olives trees from which the oil is made. Wild asparagus is lovely cooked and cut into omelette too. Or fine, young spears can be added to green salad or a salade nicoise.

Because we've had quite a bit of rain this year, everything's growing as if it's in the tropics. And that includes....morilles - morel mushrooms. A wonderful truffly mushroom that pops up in spring, morels have been few and far between in the last few years just where I live. Usually I find a dozen or so growing in the gravel round the lavender and roses. This year, out looking for asparagus, I suddenly noticed they were popping up all over the place!

Which causes great excitement. (When I spotted the first one, a woodpecker suddenly started drilling away at a tree in the garden which seemed a bit like a morel fanfare given the timing.) My instinct was to fall on the mushrooms straight away and carry them off to the kitchen. But as almost always, with almost everything in Provence, the first thing to do was to try and apply some experienced judgement. They had some more growing to do. So why not wait till tomorrow or the day after? Good thinking. Or was it? Once dusk fell, the four sangliers wild boar that live long the track would be out truffling about looking for food. The morilles would be hoovered up in a second once they were scented. So pick them now.
Or not?

I picked several and cooked them with slices of duck. Delicious. (First it was necessary to be certain they were morilles but they're quite hard to mistake. There is a variety which is highly toxic - if eaten raw - but I was cooking them anyway.)

Since then I've picked around 15 large morels which were luckily not found by the sangliers. A friend who is an expert in mycology, and so also knows his mushroom gathering, identification, cuisine and preservation, reminded me that the flavour of morilles is improved by drying them. Hang them up with their chapeaux down, he said, and use natural twine, not thread or plasticky string.
So I'm starting to collect a few more each day and hang them upside down from the ramp in the mezzanine.

I mustn't forget the less rare but equally desirable asperges sauvages though. Better go out now and find some.

Two books on Provencal homes:

Provencal Escapes: Inspirational Homes in Provence and the Cote D'azur

Provencal Inspiration: Living the French Country Spirit

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