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Tuesday, 26 October 2021

Molluscs I Have Met

It's been quite wet and autumnal throughout late September and early October, so the mollusc population of the Loire Valley has been out and about. We get some gigantic specimens of slugs and snails here so I've been photographing them as I come across them and will now present them to you. 

The slugs are all from the Forest of Loches, the snail lives with his mates in a woodland clearing on a Buddhist retreat. All of the adults were at least 10 cm long.

Red Slug Arion rufus (Fr. Grande loche).

Confusingly, Red Slugs aren't always red. They can be brown or black. Because I found it in the Forest of Loches I can be reasonably confident that it is A. rufus and not one of the other species that look identical, but it is quite a complicated species complex that includes several species and subspecies, some of which can hybridise. A. rufus is the species that is native to here, but one of the southern species has invaded and is taking its place in some parts of France. They eat decaying matter of all sorts, as well as living plants, fungi and faeces.

Juvenile Red Slug.

Ash-black Slug Limax cinereoniger (Fr. Grande limace).

Ash-black Slugs are one of the keeled slugs (that's the grey line down the middle of the back) and the largest slug in the world. It is native to woodland habitats in northern and central Europe but doesn't occur in the south. It can be black like this one or grey with black stripes. It eats algae and mushrooms, and is seen here enjoying a bracket fungi feast.

Roman Snail Helix pomatia (Fr. Escargot de Bourgogne).

Roman snails are known as Burgundian snails in France (Escargot de Bourgogne), and are the famous edible snail you see on menus. This one perfectly illustrates why one of their nicknames is the gros blanc ('large white'). They aren't all as pale as this, but population at La Gendronnière, where this one was photographed do all seem to be. They are perfectly safe at La Gendronnière, as it is a Buddhist retreat. 

The species is rare and protected in France, and not commercially viable to farm, so the ones you get in French restaurants have been gathered in the wild in Eastern Europe. The reason they are known in France as Burgundian snails is because they are traditionally prepared in the Burgundian style of cuisine, as well as Burgundy being part of their natural distribution area. They never range further than 6 metres from where they were hatched, and are normally found in grassy locations on calcareous soil.

Monday, 25 October 2021

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Some of the most sought after mushrooms in French cuisine cannot be cultivated. Ceps (Fr. cèpes, It. porcini), morels, chanterelles and girolles amongst others must be wild harvested. Only licenced foragers are allowed to sell them. Everyone else is only allowed to forage for personal consumption.

Wild girolle mushrooms from the Sologne for sale at Loches market the other day.


You can see it's not an especially good year for wild mushrooms this year in the Loire Valley. The quantity and variety in the market is minimal. A small quanity of girolles gathered in the Sologne and that's it. They are retailing for between €14 and €16 a kilo, which is not out of the ordinary for wild mushrooms. Cultivated button mushrooms retail for about €4 a kilo.

Confusingly, girolles are called chanterelles in English, and chanterelles, which are a different species, are called chanterelles as well. Girolles are Cantharellus cibaria and one of the most truly prized mushrooms in the forest, found under pine trees. They don't have gills, but rather 'pleats' or raised veins.

Saturday, 23 October 2021

Bouziès Bas

When we were in Cahors we went to the Pech Merle painted caves. On our way there we took a scenic diversion because we were going to be too early for our 11:15 tour. We stopped along the route to take photos, one of which was this. The photo was taken from here.

Friday, 22 October 2021

Don't Eat This Mushroom

There are 39 species of toxic mushrooms in France. Not many of them are lethal, but a few of them will leave you with sub-lethal effects that might make you wish you had died. The Brown Rollrim Paxillus involutus (Fr. Paxille enroulé) is one of these. What's scary is that they are abundant in the Loire Valley, in the autumn, under birch trees especially, and the species was not widely acknowledged as toxic until the 1980s, so there are still old field guides knocking about which list it as edible. Indeed, in rural areas of Eastern Europe it is still eaten by some people.

The problem is that it is not strictly toxic, but rather can produce an allergic reaction that only manifests itself some time after ingestion, or suddenly, immediately after ingestion despite having eaten the species without ill effect before, so the association is not always made. It can kill, but mostly leads to kidney damage. It seems that many people can eat them without ill effect once or twice, and the reaction occurs after the third or fourth time they are eaten. An as yet unidentified substance in the mushrooms causes your immune system to attack and destroy red blood cells, causing a lack of oxygen and glucose in the brain, acute renal failure and respiratory failure. It is not necessarily fatal and can be treated if you act quickly enough, but the condition is painful and will require dialysis.

It is a gilled mushroom, but is related to Boletes, which have pores and tubes not gills. I have heard of even experienced mushroom foragers not being careful enough and including Brown Rollrims in their basket of Boletes. 

In France what alerted people to its toxicity was an incident where a group of soldiers on survival training died because they picked and ate mushrooms they had been told by instructors were safe. 

The caps range from about 4 cm to 20 cm in diameter, convex when young but rapidly developing a central 'belly button'. Their principal and most unmistakable feature is a strongly rolled edge on the cap, especially when young. Once old they can develop a wavy edge. The cinnamon coloured cap feels similar to the nubuck or kid leather feel that Boletes have, and it goes slightly slimy or sticky when wet. The gills are decurrent ie they extend down the stem a bit. They are a pale ochre colour and the spores red ochre. They smell faintly pleasantly mushroomy.

They can be confused with certain Milkcaps such as the Ugly Milkcap Lactarius necator, but a quick check to see if they will exude 'milk' when their gills are scraped will sort that out. It could also be mistaken for a Funnel Clitocybe spp, but they have pale gills and spores. Some species of milkcaps and funnels are considered edible, but most are not.

They grow in the forest, along ditches and in lawns. These photos were taken in the front garden of some friends, where they have a colony of hundreds which come up every year.

Although it is a European species it has been accidentally introduced to Australia and other places, probably in the soil attached to imported trees.

Thursday, 21 October 2021

A Bill For Haute Couture

The Domaine de Candé, one of my favourite chateaux, has recently acquired some photos and other ephemera connected to Wallis Simpson and Fern Lombard Bedaux. I particularly liked the bill now on display on Fern's desk. It comes from the fashion house Jean Patou, and she was buying dresses, scarves, belts, buckles, bracelets, pyjamas, perfume and suntan oil, for a total of what I think works out at about the equivalent today of €40 000.

Bill for fashion items from Jean Patou to Fern Lombard Bedaux, dated March 1932.

Fern was regularly listed in fashion magazines of the time as one of the most glamorous women in the world. She was the American wife of French businessman Charles Bedaux, living a life of elegance and sophistication at their home near Tours, the Chateau of Candé.

The brand Jean Patou is now owned by LVHM, and effectively defunct. Joy, the perfume Fern was buying, had been released by Jean Patou only a couple of years earlier, and despite the Depression, was marketed as 'the most expensive perfume in the world'. It was a tremendous success right from the start, being a heady blend of rose and jasmine that appealed to many people, and the allure of wearing such an expensive product was apparently irresistible amongst those still wealthy enough to afford it. The perfume was expensive because it was genuinely expensive to make, with a dozen roses and three thousand jasmine flowers needed for each millilitre of perfume.

Fern was also very much a part of the new trend setting sporty type of women, who liked to be tanned and wore the new knitted sportswear for comfort and freedom. Jean Patou had made his name as the designer of fast living French superstar tennis player Suzanne Lenglen's wardrobe, and Fern no doubt appreciated his remarkable ability to combine elegance with comfort. He was the first to create a scented suntanning oil, and this is undoubtedly what the '2 huiles @ 90FF' item is on her invoice.

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Chubby Cherubs and Demonic Dogs

The Chateau of Azay le Rideau has some nice 16th century carvings at the ends of the rib vaulting in the kitchens. Because the floor level was raised significantly in the 19th century these cherubs and other creatures are more or less at eye level rather than above head height.

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