Only the other morning I was out on the bike with our dog. (Alf was on foot.) It was a damp chilly morning and, after climbing the track up to Monsieur Delpy’s sheep shed – which sets my heart a-racing and keeps me in condition – we turned off into the wood. There we came across three white vans parked all in a row.
Immediately I start speculating on the nefarious business they might be party to. Something, no doubt, that threatened the integrity of the oak wood, which provides a refuge from humanity for all the unseen creatures within. Pretty soon my racing mind has deposited me right bang in the middle of a grim scenario similar to that which the last lost tribes of the Amazon are now enduring in the face of gold miners and rapacious loggers. But then Alf went racing off, barking at some distant figure. It turned out to be a surly man in green Wellingtons. Mushrooms! Of course. An early hour, damp in the air… Nothing more sinister than the national obsession with fungi. Maybe he looked upon us as unfair competition. A mobile man and his sniffer-dog.
I should have known. Most days recently I’ve spotted a car parked at the side of the road and heard the slow, deliberate footsteps of someone tracking mushrooms among the trees. The intermittent warmth of this wet spring has brought the season forward by a few weeks. On Tuesday morning, as if by magic, our femme de ménage gleefully produced from her basket a great big plastic bag full of convoluted yellow girolles. I gasped like a good audience should do. For us? Pour vous. Her husband and 13-year old daughter had found a ton of them somewhere just across the frontier in the Corrèze.
The conversation turned to fungal mythology. Did I know, for example, that in the Haute Corrèze you’re liable to get your tyres slashed if you should stop off to look for mushrooms and your number plates indicate that you hail from outside the department? In fact, I did. One of my wife’s earliest clients was a woman who dealt in mushrooms with her husband. They ran the equivalent of a local stock exchange. Debs started her career as an aromatherapist in France by doing home visits. Madame P. was not the easiest client to massage, because she would constantly answer the telephone to give or receive the latest price of a bushel of cèpes or a panier of girolles or a fistful of trompettes de mort.
She also clued us in about the local etiquette. Roadside tyre-slashing was only one of a number of more or less extreme territorial acts. We lived on the edge of parts where natives duelled on banjos and didn’t doubt for one minute that interlopers might well have been disfigured, tortured and/or murdered before being dumped in some tributary of the upper Dordogne.
Monsieur and Madame P. were a sweet couple. They would never have gone in for such shenanigans. Madame always brought something plastic for our young daughter when she started coming to the house for her periodic massage. Monsieur would visit his aunt across the road and then wander over bow-leggedly in outsize gumboots to pick up his revitalised wife. They used to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning or whenever dawn was about to break to fill their bags with nature’s bounty. It was all tax-free and their earnings in a good season were enough to keep them going for the rest of the year.
Although happy to divulge that the best-ever year for mushrooms had been the year following Chernobyl, they never hinted at where they went at 5 o’clock in the morning. They presumably mistook us for people who gave a fig. People prepared to lie in wait at some God-forsaken hour and track them down to their happy hunting ground. Much as the three of us love a nice girolle or boletus edibilis cooked in butter and cream and garnished with chopped parsley, the knowledge of their propagation by wind-born radioactivity rather deadens the appetite.
Besides, my track record is lousy. I once had an extended lesson from a bumptious Parisian holidaymaker, who was known dismissively in the village as le Parisien. Clod, as we called him, had the face of a Notre Dame gargoyle and the persistence of a tele-salesman. In those far off days, I simply didn’t have enough command of the language to say no to someone who wouldn’t take no for an answer. So one morning I donned my trusty pair of steel-toed Wellies, a legacy of a summer job on a building site in a part of central Wales where the inhabitants also duel on banjos, and I followed Clod the Gargoyle into a nearby chestnut wood. For two or three hours I stomped around in slow motion with my gaze fixed resolutely on the ground while Clod assailed my ears with his words of wisdom. At the end of such purgatory, I took one slug-nibbled cèpe home to my wife and daughter. Neither was impressed.
Ever since then, I have been happier to accept the occasional gift or to pick less valued but more easily spotted coulemelles in meadows. At least it gives you some kind of sense of achievement. I tried to explain this to the farmer who sold us the land here when I encountered him on Friday morning soon after setting off on my customary round-with-the-hound. His was the car this time parked on the side of the road and I recognised the figure prowling in the wood opposite ours. He’s not a very nice man: his sinister house is ornamented with the heads of animals he has hunted down, and he keeps his dog in a concrete pound that’s rarely cleaned. I’m still intending one dark night to don a balaclava, take some wire-cutters and liberate the poor creature.
I pretended not to notice him, but he said hello to me and, being a nice polite Englishman, I stopped pedalling and hung around just long enough to be bitten to bits by the mosquitoes that are currently out in force. There would certainly be mushrooms in our part of the wood, he suggested. The farmer didn’t really understand my lack of enthusiasm and turned the subject, as he often does, to one of his many plots of land for sale. He labours under the extraordinary misconception that everyone English looking to build a house over here will, simply because they are English, pass through our front door.
I bade him adieu and continued on my merry way, now scratching frantically at bites on my legs. On the way back, the car was still parked by the side of the road. Maybe the man had crossed into our part of the wood now. He likes to think that he still has a seigneurial right to the land that he sold us ten years ago. Had I but thought to come out equipped with a good sharp Opinel in my back pocket, I could have plunged it deep into his tyres. That would have larned him once and for good. The thing is, though, and I know it’s heretical of me, but I just don’t care that much about champignons.