The thing about living in a rural location is that somehow one gets to know most of the people in the locale without realising it. At least that’s how it’s been for us. An example of this is our friendship with the Ambourget family, which began quite by accident soon after we had arrived.
One of my first forays into our nearest town was to shop at Carrefour, a supermarket, to buy food and other essentials. Unlike most of its counterparts, this store is pocket-sized and was peppered with people who seemed to know each other. I’m not sure what fascinated me most about this visit, hunting around the aisles inspecting the local produce, or observing the other customers’ behaviour.
One particular deep-seated custom that caught my eye was the in-shop greeting. When a friend or acquaintance was spotted, half-filled trolleys were immediately abandoned in favour of hugs and kisses, followed by a deep discussion. It was all very earnest and happened constantly.
As a newcomer, I had no-one to discuss the weather and local goings-on with, but it didn’t matter. Every single person I passed hailed me with a cheerful “bonjour madame”. This developed further when I got to the checkout. A small, sunny-faced lady operating the till asked where I was from. This began a stilted conversation which soon became a general chat as other customers joined in. Their places in the queue forsaken like the trolleys, everyone far more interested in learning about me than paying for their goods.
Sometime later I came away knowing the names of my checkout lady and one or two other shoppers. From these tentative beginnings my firm friendship with the wonderful Nicole was forged.
The timing of this fledgling friendship coincided with major renovations to our property. It was a tortuous project that took us much longer than we’d ever anticipated, but that’s the subject of another story. One of the artisans we dealt with was a granite specialist. His name was Georges, and he was ably assisted by his father, Yves. They were both very quietly spoken, built to hump lumps of granite with the greatest of ease, and all-round absolute gentlemen.
We were enjoying an end-of-day beer with them one evening when we learnt the first link in their family tree. I’d explained where I was doing our local shopping and Georges shyly mentioned that his mother worked there. Coincidentally it transpired that this was Nicole, the checkout lady. There was absolutely no resemblance between burly Georges and his mother, who is very slim, so I felt I could be forgiven some surprise. But the genuine warmth of personalities was shared amongst all three of them. From there, further members of the family were gradually introduced, but in a somewhat unusual way.
Georges and Yves have an enduring love for mushroom picking, a popular obsession in these parts. One day they told us that our forest was famed for having some of the best fungi in the region. This was not the first time the subject had been mentioned – most everyone we’d met was up to speed on the subject. Their idea of bliss was to amble amongst the trees searching for these woodland wonders, and then cook their spoils later on.
Because their faces lit up with such ecstatic pleasure at the very thought of it, we immediately invited them to do their hunting in the enclosed section of our woods, the prized area. We were in the process of adding they might meet one or two others to whom we’d extended similar permission when Yves said he’d already heard. Wringing his baseball cap bashfully in his hands, he confessed that his brother-in-law was one of our neighbours and he was also a mushroom fancier. The family tree continued to burgeon from there on.
Every time Yves or Georges wanted to go fungi foraging, Nicole would courteously telephone to seek permission. This is how we met Georges’ three children and one of his brothers, Dominique. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and they asked if we would mind if the family group could have an amble in the woods. Of course we readily agreed.
That same afternoon we were repairing one of our observation hides when they appeared around the corner, supported by shepherd’s crooks and armed with wicker baskets. Georges quickly arranged his cherubic children in height order and introduced each one, then his brother Dominique, whose basket was already overflowing with assorted mushroomy gems.
Yves and Nicole then appeared, beaming contentedly at their delightful grandchildren. With the introductions complete, Yves took on an air of the conspirator. In hushed whispers he informed us that they’d discovered a marvellous spot that, currently, was bursting at the seams with ceps. Clearly this was something to be excited by, except that I wasn’t at all certain what a cep was. We congratulated him on his find then I revealed my lamentable mushroom-ignorance by asking what they looked like.
Fortunately, this seemed to be the very question Yves was hoping I might ask. In response he proudly thrust his pannier under my nose which contained several large moth-eaten looking specimens. These, he assured me, were truly excellent. Intrigued by the possibilities of new discoveries, and persuaded by their infectious enthusiasm, we agreed to join them the next day.
The following evening Yves, Nicole and Georges arrived early. Barely able to conceal their excitement, the men dashed off leaving Nicole to tag along behind. We fell in step with her and ambled along, chatting amicably about local goings-on in the village. When we reached the special spot, we found Yves and Georges already hard at it, picking cautiously at the dead leaves, hoping to uncover a nugget or two. It was then that we realised we were not alone. To our surprise Gilbert, the brother-in-law, who apparently has an expert nose for these things, was already there and poking around with focused attention.
The following two hours turned out to be quite an education. Each of the men was armed with their proper mushroom-collecting wicker basket and shepherd’s crook, and foraged independently on different patches. Neither approached the others’ territory, it seemed to be an unspoken mushroom-respect rule.
Meanwhile, Jack, my husband, and I, totally clueless as to what we were looking for, wandered around with our plastic carrier bags. These graphically labelled us as total amateurs, but we hadn’t had time to buy the pro kit.
Nicole and I spent a goodly amount of time enjoying the rustic scenes, but none of that for the other men, they were entirely dedicated to the task in hand.
Every now and again there would be a whoop of joy, and an “oh, la la!” from someone who had a found a particularly wonderful fungus. We’d all gather around and coo appropriately, whereupon it would be delicately removed with the special mushroom-cutting knife and gently stowed in the pannier.
As beginners, it was decided that Jack and I needed to have our finds checked to make sure that they were edible. This was essential because even we knew that some varieties of mushroom can be deadly. We just didn’t know which ones. Yves, on the other hand, was an acclaimed expert and appointed as official inspector. He scrutinised each offering, segregating them into three categories: toxic - discard it immediately, edible but not of a professional standard, and highly sought after.
By the end of the evening every pannier was filled with a variety of different fungi, but the prized cep was by far the most popular. The enthusiasts were thrilled to bits with their harvest. Even Jack had done exceedingly well by stumbling on a bounteous crop which reaped many edible beauties. Conversely neither I nor Nicole had managed to gather any at all, but that didn’t matter – it had been a great experience.
We decided to celebrate our first champignon-picking foray with drinks, and returned to the house for a glass of wine. This was when we met Nicole’s sister. Gilbert had walked a long way across the fields from his farm to the mushroom zone, declared that he was too tired to walk back, and called his wife, Emily, to come and pick him up. Once she arrived we settled comfortably around the kitchen table where the next mushroom-related tradition was demonstrated.
Each of the men proudly showed off their goodies. We collectively viewed the spoils which included ceps, chanterelles and the trompette de la mort (trumpet of the dead) – the latter of which were as black as the ace of spades and looked extremely toxic to me. However they were deemed to be delicacies along with their earthy compatriots.
Typical of the generous folk in our area they insisted on sharing their harvest with us. They said that, since it was on our land where they’d picked the mushrooms, we must have some. Jack looked absolutely horrified at the idea and I quickly explained that whilst it was a very kind gesture, we would hate to deny them of their hard-earned bounty. Besides which, I added, I had no experience of the special cooking techniques that might apply to the more exotic varieties. I should have guessed what would happen next.
An energetic debate instantly began amongst the family groups as to which were the best cooking processes and recipes to teach me. Emily, who was is a sturdy, unflappable sort and structurally quite the opposite of her sister, was determined that the only way a cep should be eaten was in an omelette. I wouldn’t have dreamt of arguing with her. However, Yves was having none of it. Exhibiting horror at the idea of contaminating the magical flavour of the heavenly cep with any other substance, he insisted that they must be eaten on their own, or at a push cooked in a little butter with just a touch of garlic and parsley.
To save himself from expiring from a mushroom-information-overload, Jack concentrated on what he does best – making sure everyone had enough to drink. One bottle of wine was quickly consumed so he went to get reinforcements. Now, if there’s anything else that’s going to capture a Frenchman’s interest it’s the sight of a nice bottle of wine. Yves was in middle of expounding the values of the dried versus the frozen mushroom, when Jack produced three different bottles of wine. He asked which they would like.
Yves stopped in his tracks and issued a sigh of admiration. He quickly tapped Nicole on the shoulder – she knew what to do. Reaching into her voluminous quilt jacket pocket she produced a pair of broken reading specs which Yves balanced precariously on the end of his nose. There was a moment of hushed silence as each of the three bottles was reverently passed from one family member to the other and the labels studied in minute detail.
The culinary virtues of mushrooms were then temporarily traded with a pithy debate about the vintage, quality of grape and relative merit of each bottle. It was at this point I felt rather relieved that I hadn’t offered a selection of cheeses, we’d have been there all night.
Eventually the bottles were delicately handed back to Jack, who was looking as though he was about to stab himself with the cork screw. Fresh glasses were filled, contents sniffed, swirled and sipped, and we returned to the subject of mushrooms.
To my untrained eye some of the specimens had looked pretty grotty. I asked whether those with grubs in them would be discarded. This was obviously a dreadful notion. My innocent question was met by appalled expressions from everyone around the table, save Jack, who looked as though he would gladly chuck the whole lot into the compost unit. The thought of disposing of these beauties was obviously a sacrilegious one and gave rise to an even livelier debate about the quickest, and most thorough, cleaning methods.
Keeping up with the local accent is hard enough at the best of times, but when one is in the midst of a heated discussion with everyone talking at once, it’s very tricky indeed. In the end the matter was resolved by the diminutive Nicole. She wanted to make sure that I understood the techniques involved and held up her hand. In an instant the assembled company fell silent. She asked me whether I would mind if she demonstrated the process. I, of course agreed, and within seconds she had taken command of the range cooker.
Tiny, skinny, retiring Nicole transformed into master chef, and barked out instructions to everyone who did exactly as she commanded without question. She began by collected samples from each pannier. I produced olive oil (had to be extra virgin), butter (half-salt), garlic (pink), several eggs (brown, medium sized), parsley and various pots and pans. We all gathered round to watch as she treated us to a masterclass on how to prepare ceps and trompette de la mort – three ways. Others helped out at different stages, but she was definitely the boss.
As the culinary scene played out there was very little arguing over the techniques involved, but that’s perhaps because she expertly produced platefuls of mushrooms that were either plain, with added garlic and butter or as part of an omelette. Oh, and just a little seasoning. That, together with hunks of fresh bread, meant that there was something for everyone.
Another bottle of wine was carefully inspected and reverently sipped, apparently chosen for its particular suitability to go with the recipes we were savouring. Conversational topics flowed easily from the fruits of our forest to the local inhabitants of the village and it was then that Georges informed us that we knew another of his relations. It transpired that one of his uncles ran the petrol station we used. Huh – what a small world it was.
The evening finally ended around 11pm. Our simple impromptu glass of wine had evolved into a gourmet classic. Despite the late hour and our earnest protestations, they refused to go until the house was put back together again. Emily and Nicole fought over washing and drying duties leaving me to tidy up around the edges and put things away. Finally the men gathered up their precious harvests and they made their ways to the cars, each filled with gratitude and bonhomie.
Yves had driven halfway out of the drive when he reversed back again. Nicole popped her head out of the car window and called us over. She’d had an idea. It struck her that we hadn’t met nearly enough of her family yet and invited us to their house for dinner. It might not be possible to meet everyone on one visit she said, but she was keen to introduce us to her other children and her mother, who had lived with them for years. She also wanted to cook us a traditional Tarn et Garonne dinner, it would be their way of thanking us. We tried to say that there was no need but that was a fruitless exercise. Our shy, quiet friend had made her decision and it was enthusiastically supported by both Yves and Georges who nodded vigorously.
That evening had been a very special one for us. We were introduced to new treasures in the forest, met more members of this wonderful family and cemented friendships that, I’m happy to say, have become stronger each year. And, despite socialising on a regular basis, I’m sure that we still haven’t met all of the family.