The 3 dangers, trials and tribulations of mushroom hunting in France:
For generations, French people both young and old have been venturing out to their secret spot in the hills, during mushroom foraging season armed with nothing more than hand-held wicker baskets, knives and maybe a flashlight to light the way.
These mushroom foragers happily wake up in the wee hours of the morning when it’s still dark outside, to dig in the dirt, turn over old leaves and look between trees and bushes in search of their wild mushroom stash for the year.
Most will spend a few hours and find a few edible mushrooms while the more serious foragers will spend days on end searching for mushrooms and take home a few kilos.
Mushroom hunting or mushroom foraging is called “la chasse aux champignons” or “la cueillette de champignons” is taken very seriously- it’s practically a national past time in France.
As picturesque, quaint and benign as mushroom foraging sounds, there are some real dangers that can get you killed, badly hurt or put in jail if you are not careful.
Here is what you need to know before you decide to go mushroom foraging in France.
1. You can get poisoned or die
The first and most obvious danger about mushroom hunting is that you can accidentally pick a poisonous mushroom and die.
Of the 3,000 plus varieties of mushrooms that can be found in France, only a few are edible. The rests are either poisonous and can kill you or make you extremely ill. Poisonous or not, this doesn’t stop the French from taking to the hills to gather mushrooms.
Every year there are over 1,000 cases of mushroom poisoning and 30 to 40 deaths in France.
The deadliest mushroom you need to recognize
If there is just one mushroom you should commit to memory and avoid like the plage it is the “Death Cap” mushroom which has an equally scary name in French. It’s called “le calice de la mort” which means chalice of death.
The death cap is quite possibly the deadliest of all poisonous mushrooms and accounts for 90% of all mushroom poisonings. One single death cap mushroom, can kill an adult.
Other poisonous mushrooms found in France that can kill you include the following:
****These mushrooms may be found on other continents also.
- Amanita verna, commonly known as the Fool’s mushroom.
- Amanita virosa, commonly known as the European destroying angel.
- Cortinarius orellanus, commonly known in English as Fool’s webcap
- Entoloma lividum, commonly known in English as the livid pinkgill, leaden entoloma, and lead poisoner.
- Omphalotus olearius, commonly known as the jack-o’-lantern mushroom and to the untrained eye looks a lot like a chanterelle
A cute little mushroom which will make you hallucinate (get high)
When we went mushroom foraging near a friend’s house in the woods above the city of Cannes, we found a cute little unassuming red mushroom covered with white spots that reminded me of gnomes and fairies.
I wanted to pick it but my friend said that it was a hallucinate. It’s called the fly agaric or fly amanita and some people purposely search for them and eat them just to experience its hallucination powers.
We didn’t pick one but opted to take pictures of ourselves standing over them just so we could prove we saw one up close.
What to do if you think you’ve been poisoned
Symptoms can appear up to 12 hours after you’ve consumed your mushrooms and can last for weeks. If you think you might be poisoned from a wild mushroom, you should seek medical help right away. Go straight to the emergency room, call the nearest anti-poison centre or dial 15 (in France). If not treated you could actually DIE!!!!!!
Symptoms of poisoning: The first symptoms of mushroom poisoning are stomach pains, vomiting and diarrhea which may last for up to two days followed by an easing of symptoms for 2 or 3 days until the terminal phase which lasts 3 to 5 days. During the last terminal phase, stomach pains, vomiting and diarrhea return – accompanied by jaundice. Coma and or death follows one or two weeks after eating the poisonous death cap mushroom. Death is caused by liver failure, often accompanied by kidney failure. (via source)
Get a book to help you identify edible mushrooms and avoid poisonous ones
It’s wise not to pick or eat a wild mushroom if you can’t identify it and there are countless mushroom foraging books to help you identify poisonous mushrooms from edible ones.
Here is a mushroom picking book which is particularly good: Mushrooming without Fear: The Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Safe and Delicious Mushrooms. It tells you all you need to get started in mushroom foraging and contains colour photographs of the mushrooms with an identification checklist. It goes further into the subject of foraging and talks about mushroom season, handling, storing, and cooking wild mushrooms.
Which edible wild mushrooms should you hunt for in France?
Depending on the region you are in, mushrooms varieties will vary. Some favorite edible mushrooms among French mushroom foragers include:
Pied de mouton = which translates to Sheep foot because it sort of looks like a sheep’s foot.
Sanguins = which translates to blood or bloody because the mushroom has a slight reddish tint to it.
Girolles Cèpes = otherwise known in English as Porcini mushrooms
Morilles= called morel mushrooms in English
Chanterelles = same name in English
Oronges= commonly known in English as Caesar’s mushroom and named so because it was a favourite of early rulers of the Roman empire.
Coprin = Shaggy ink cap because it looks like it has ink dripping from its cap.
Pleurote = Oyster mushrooms
Truffle= Infamously tasty and wildly expensive, finding truffles is like finding gold to a mushroom hunter and just as rare because finding truffles usually involves a trained pig or dog who can smell truffles which are hidden underground and only grow under certain conditions.
A truffler and his truffle sniffing cochon via Wikipedia
How to ensure the mushrooms you picked are not poisonous
For anyone who wants to make sure that they have not picked poisonous mushrooms, you can take your mushroom haul to one of the local pharmacies in France. All French pharmacists are supposed to be trained experts in identifying deadly and poisonous mushrooms.
2. You might get shot while mushroom foraging
Not to scare you but another danger for mushroom pickers is that mushroom season can overlap with hunting season and both can share the same type of terrain (via source).
Every year there are accidental shootings resulting in injury and death. Many are just taking a walk in the forest but at least one or two unlucky mushroom gathers get shot by hunters each year too.
3. You can get thrown in jail or receive a fine of up to 45,0000 Euros
For those who still want to forage for wild edible mushrooms despite the risk of getting shot or poisoned, there is always the wrath of the government if you are not careful.
Where and how many wild mushrooms you are allowed to pick
Wild mushrooms foraging is tolerated in most public forest and national parks however there are certain rules that you need to adhere to.
According to the French forest code R163-5 e, if you are caught picking more than 5 KG of mushrooms on public forest property, you could face up to 3 years in prison and up to 45,000 Euros in fines. (source via forest privée Français)
The same is true if you are caught foraging mushrooms on someone else’s property without their permission.
Don’t assume it’s ok to pick mushroom on someone’s property just because there is no fence or signs saying foraging is not permitted. You should always ask the property owners for permission.
There have been reported cases of property owners going a little too far and assaulting trespassers.
Things you need to forage for wild edible mushrooms.
If you’re still up to mushroom foraging despite the dangers and the rules or you know someone who wants to get started mushroom foraging, here are some of the things you’ll need to consider bringing and using.
A wicker basket to gather the mushrooms
There is something enchanting and old-world about picking wild mushrooms in the forest with a charming wicker basket in hand- (called a “panier d’osier” in French). But they’re not only aesthetically pleasing, but they are also functional too. The wicker baskets allow the spores to fall out as you walk around hunting for mushrooms which in turn is like replanting new mushrooms for foragers.
A mushroom knife
Except for a knife, tools of any kind are frowned upon when mushroom gathering. And if you’re going to get a knife, you might as well get the right kind of knife- a sharp one with a curved blade.
Opinel and Laguiole are two French companies that make knives specifically for mushroom hunting.
Opinel no 8 mushroom knife looks similar to a pocket knife because the blade folds into the handle and fits nicely in your pocket. What sets it apart from an ordinary pocket knife is that it has a thin, sharp curved blade with a serrated back which makes it easier to remove the mushroom cuticle (the outer most layer of the skin). It has a beechwood handle with a boar hair brush for easy removal of soil.
You might know Laguiole for its knives and corkscrew. But Laguiole also makes a multi-function mushroom knife has 2 blades- a long one and shorter curved one, a corkscrew, a bottle and can opener and small brush to remove soil from harvested mushrooms.
Clothing and shoes to protect yourself
Clothing is just as important as having a good knife because many of the places you go to forage for mushrooms are areas where walking through dense ground cover will expose your skin to branches that can poke you, shrubs and thorns that can scratch and scrape you and wet ground that can soak and chill you to the bone.
I suggest wearing long pants such as jeans and a long sleeve shirt. I would also bring some gloves which you can use to push away grass and shrubs as you search for your mushrooms which can keep your hands dry and warm if it is cold or wet. And please don’t forget that you should wear boots or shoes that will keep your feet dry.
A walking stick or wooden staff
Mushrooms are often hidden under shrubs, dead leaves, in dense grass and other hidden places so it’s helpful to have a walking staff or some random stick to gently spread everything that covers the mushrooms without damaging them during your mushroom hunt.
A good flashlight (preferable weather resistant)
For good measure, a good flashlight or headlamp can come in handy to find those pesky mushrooms hiding in dark places. Preferably one that is water and weather resistant since oftentimes the weather conditions can be wet and rainy. I like the USB rechargeable kind.
Forget about wild mushroom foraging and just buy your mushrooms
If you’re not up to the challenge of getting poisoned, shot at, chased off someone’s property or put in jail, then just do what a lot of French people do. Buy your wild mushrooms at the nearest French market or grocery store. You’ll pay a pretty penny (centime) but it’s worth it.
Watch this short video showing what it’s like to forage for mushrooms in France
It will give you an idea of what it’s like to forage for mushrooms in France. They never reveal in the video where they went to forage. It’s a secret and they are taunting the audience with their bountiful pickings. Damn them!!