December is there and with it winter, weekends in the Loire are being spaced although this is a beautiful season too : the light is rare but often beautiful. One thing I didn't expect to be still doing at this time of the year is going to the mushrooms in the wild. Usually at this stage of the season most mushrooms have badly suffered from several harsh frost bites, the early morning being usually very cold as early as november in the region. But while mushrooms were very rare in the usual high season of september because of the extreme drought of the the upper soil, they flourished back during the late autumn thanks to mild temperatures and regular rain. And that's how almost in mid december you end up filling your bag not only with wood hedgehogs (Pieds de Mouton in French) also known under the scientific name of Hydnum Repandum, but with Boletus (Cèpe in French) which have usually rotten long time ago at this time of the year.
This particular weekend where I ventured twice into the woods, I lost myself once and as I was walking on a muddy forest road in what happened to be the wrong direction I saw a Mercedes all-terrain vehicule slowly coming my way along the slippery path. The driver, who was very kind, told me that there was precisely a hunting operation taking place where I was wrongfully heading to. He explained me which forest lane I had to take to get back to where I had parked my old Citroën Ami 8. It was 4:30pm and the light was dimming fast, this was a very long way back and I thought that next time I should bring a compass with me or maybe if the product exists on the market, a GPS tool that points to where your vehicule is parked (that's exactly what I need in fact). I always walk straight through the woods, leaving the forest roads or lanes behind and one time or another I loose my orientation, especially on rainy days like these when there is no sun to help.
While spotting a Boletus is arduous at this time of the year because the mushroom's upper surface melts so well among the same-color dead leaves, the difficulty with the Wood Hedgehog is that it likes to grow underneath the dead leaves cover, and you usually spot only a tiny patch of the mushroom. Happily, as it is white, you have some help from mother Nature here with the contrast from the surrounding leaves. Sometimes it even grows under surface roots or ivy and thus it takes a circumvoluted shape as it tries nonetheless to rise toward the light. That's also a reason why I like this mushroom, I like the way it makes its nest under the natural carpet of dead leaves and surface roots. On the taste side, it is not as tasty as the Boletus but there's a crunchy side that I like, and plus it never rots, all the Wood Hedgehogs that I picked this weekend were in perfect condition.
As you may notice on the picture on the side, the frying stage blurred somehow the difference in color between the Boletus and the Wood Hedgehob, they're all sort of beigeish now, and it's hard to say which is which. It's up to your taste but I personally prefer to have the mushroms well cooked (and shrinked), but stopping before they're too dry. Ideally, it's good to keep the pieces a bit soft and with an onctuous structure.
I didn't look that far for the wine paring that day, and this Alsace Pinot Noir 2007 that I opened as apéritif happened to be a very good match. I bought a 12-bottle case two years ago from this winery (through an intermediary who buys regularly from them) because I had had at that time a very good red from this Alsace winery (Jean-Paul Schaffhauser in Wettolsheim). That's probably what we'd call a conventional winery in terms of viticulture and vinification techniques, but I liked very much the character and pleasure of this Pinot Noir back then, and its price was astoundly cheap : There are two Pinot Noir wines at Jean-Paul Schaffhauser, one aged partly in foudres/partly in stainless-steel vats (the Pinot Noir Reserve, which is the one I tried) at 4,3 Euro, and the other aged in casks (named Elevé en Fûts de chêne) at 5,2 Euro. That's amazingly cheap.
Two years being a minimum to enjoy fully what a Pinot Noir (and several other red varieties btw) can offer, that was the right time to begin drink the wine. It is still very fruity. Very enjoyable wine, I downed pretty well most of this bottle by myself I must concede, between the apéritif and the dinner and had no hangover or any bad side effect that often come with biotech-manipulated wines. This 2007 was maybe less structured than the one I had two years ago (probably a 2005) but the overall experience was pleasant.
On the wine-pairing side, this Pinot Noir was not a bad match, its light tannins and seemingly light acidity didn't overwhelm the smooth suavity and fleshily aromas of the mushrooms (the Boletus's onctuosity had taken over the more neutral Wood Hedgehogs here).
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