At the Mercy of Nature
Wild mushrooms drive the point home
September 17, 2007
In this era of climate change, more of us are starting to wake up to the notion that we are at the mercy of nature. This is something that farmers, winemakers and foragers have always intimately known, and so the best have learnt to respect nature and work with it the best they can. With every season, they find new optimism and pick up a few new tricks, never quite knowing exactly what’s in store. I admire them.
These days, my life as a chef with a set of principles relies increasingly on the bounty in our backyard. With the growing season peaking, this has not been a problem for some time. Now however, the thermometer is dropping and we have a menu event featuring 20 odd kinds of wild mushrooms just weeks away, and so my anxiety with regards to what nature will provide in the last breaths of summer is climbing.
Mushrooms are more unpredictable than anything. I reckon therein lies the spell they hold on foragers and mushroom lovers alike. They are so beautiful, delicious and impossibly difficult to get to know well, always playing hard to get. And no matter how many books you read, or how much time you spend in the forest, you are always one careless step away from being a goner.
That is, if you can find them. This has been a dreadful year for most wild mushroom varieties in and around Montreal . Further north in the Laurentians and in the Mauricie, they seem to have had marginally better luck. Pickers in the Charelevoix and the Gaspesie on the other hand, can’t keep up.
I have plenty of chanterelles and pine mushrooms, a good amount of lobster mushrooms, and assorted boletus. But I’m still waiting for substantial quantities of hedgehog, porcini, puffball and fairy ring.. The oysters, the blue-foots, among others have yet to come into season.. Will they? Will we find them? If anyone can locate them, my François can, but he can’t be everywhere at once and the clock is ticking.. He seems confident that nature will cooperate, but I can’t help but wonder, having witnessed by now how magic mushrooms can be indeed.
I hear people ‘in the know’ speculate about it having been too hot, not humid enough, the winter too harsh, but that all we need is one good rain and then some nice weather, blah, blah, blah.. It seems to me that no one really knows much. Seasoned pickers tell stories about their hits and conquests in big, but if you listen long enough, the tales of disappointment and puzzling misses inevitably follow. How year after year, they had a fruitful fairy ring or porcini patch in a particular spot that they carefully checked, and then poof, no more. How the common varieties are coming out in the wrong order, novel unfamiliar species being spotted here and there, reports of a certain beloved mushroom now on the skull and crossbones list.. Just look at the books: they all say something different about a particular mushroom, if you can even identify anything at all amidst the multiple styles of classification, the complex jargon and poor photography. Against my bookish ways, I’ve found the surest backbone in anecdotal knowledge, knowing that generations of the same family have picked and eaten a certain variety growing in a certain place for years without malaise. And when it comes to my customers, I play it safe. But still, the wild mushroom remains elusive.
So to me, the wild mushroom seems to be the perfect metaphor for the mysterious ways of nature as we live them. It’s a food we can hardly understand, that we can barely cultivate. We’re seduced by it, but scared of it. It’s one of the last examples of nature exercising its power over us. We’ve dabbled just about everywhere we could in our natural landscape, but just when we think we understand something, we try and exert control, at which point nature eventually surprises us. For example, super bugs and antibiotic resistant bacteria, global warming and climate change, industrial food and obesity, to name a few..
Being in mushroom desperation mode, I am in my own personal face-off with Mother Nature and I must bow down and acknowledge the fact that I can’t control the outcome too much. Being so involved with planet earth and the unknown makes me feel like I’m living life in its essence, but it’s exhausting for a worry-wart like me. It would be so much easier to tone down my menu and just order up what I need from miles away. All I can do is be organized so that I’m ready for anything, and I need to do what I can to liberate François, the real forager, so that he can go out and gather whatever Nature has decided to give us. I need to change my menu according to the finds. But mainly in the mean time, I need to have faith.
There is still a thread of the city girl in me that wants what I want now, nice and conveniently clean and ready to use, but it's wearing thin. Going on eight years in the country now, cooking with the seasons and frequenting grounded types, I've changed into someone who values everything but, and chooses to be at the mercy of nature; it's almost a religion. My tie to nature, my new reverence for it, and associated requirement for faith all remind me of exactly that. I think this is the closest to feeling ‘God’ that an agnostic can muster. Not unlike what I sensed studying the upper echelons of calculus and biochemistry. To be wowed by a beauty you have the slightest grasp on, to sense a governing omnipresence that you deem in your best interest to worship, to feel like a small part of something much larger and more magnificent, to feel the need to have faith, and to feel better for it.
Even if it’s all about ‘fancy’ food here, living this dance with nature feels important and necessary as a human bean in the grand scheme of things. I also can’t help but feel closer to our ancestors who devoted most of their waking hours to securing their food at the mercy of nature. And I feel like I've shed a childish or superficial layer or two.
I lose that connected feeling when in the city too long. I love the city - the people, the stimuli, the freedom, but it can also be decadent and unhealthy. Besides having too many places to go and too many indulgences at my fingertips, it’s more about how easy it is to lapse into a detached state, where I feel grateful and awed less often, more impatient and preoccupied with things that don’t really matter, like traffic. I know it’s time to get back to the country when I forget to stop and smell the flowers, when it makes equal sense to eat a mango as it does an apple in September, or to use a small tree’s worth of firewood without seeing that empty space.. Or when I’m too far to know if Nature is giving me a bounty of mushrooms to cook up..
If you are interested in our wild mushroom dinner event at La Table des Jardins Sauvages starting October 18th, please visit www.jardinssauvages.com, or view the menu here http://soupnancy.squarespace.com/recipes-/ and call 450-588-5125.