I’ve always wondered what happens, at the onset of winter, to the profusion of window-box geraniums which brighten Alsace villages. An October visit to Trimbach gave me my answer. The tractor driver carefully positioned his trailer beneath the balconies; a sturdy vineyard worker made his way up the back stairs. He emerged. One by one, box by box, he upended the lot. They crashed down into the trailer in a splatter of leaf, petal, potting soil and broken root. As we nosed the bright apple and orange on Trimbach’s Riesling Reserve 2017 and sipped its pungent, crunchy, sappy-stony refreshment, we could see (through the tasting-room windows) the murdered geraniums being driven away for disposal. That’s what a cellar filled with 2.7 million bottles of delicious white wine makes possible. The geranium liberation front has been informed.
I stayed on an extra day this time, to go to see Julien Camus, founder of the specialist regional wine-education provider The Wine Scholar Guild. He and his wife Céline and their daughter Zoe live in a gingerbread-like house up in the forested Vosges hills. After heading to Colmar market to purchase scallops, oysters and cheese, we adjourned to the forest. October: of course. The mushrooms beckoned.
I was a keen mushroom hunter in the woods of Kent and Sussex prior to leaving the UK at the beginning of 2009, and used to fancy that British mycophiles were well placed (since mushroom-hunting wasn’t a national obsession). I now know differently. My day in the Vosges with Julien and Céline was, as the French say, hallucinant; I’ve never known anything like it (and this had nothing to do with the Psilocybe family). In the UK, you’re very lucky if more than one in fifty or a hundred mushrooms is a genuine cep, Boletus edulis; you won’t see a single specimen on many days in the woods. Mostly, UK baskets come back full of bay boletes (Imleria badia) or slippery jacks (Suillus luteus), plus a handful of chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius); nice enough in their own way, but less good eating and less good for drying. British maggots, too, are quicker off the mark than greyhounds, and Falstaffian in their greed.
Out in the Vosges, we didn’t bother picking anything except ceps, and in two sorties came back with a kilo or so; we weren’t the only hunters, either. The quality was superb; size handsome; maggot count modest. Very kindly (he had spotted most of them; they tend to be cunningly concealed and solitary) Julien divvied up the haul, prepared and cut my share, and cooked it briefly in olive oil before vacuum-packing it. The precious cargo came back south on the train with me the following day; risotto, pork loin and a pasta dish have been beatified with them since. Rich Alsace whites truly are a good partner, pinot gris and gewurztraminer included; but the mushrooms furnished the best combination yet for a bottle from my case of 2013 Barbaresco from the trusty Produttori. And now... they’re gone; moreover the garrigue around my southern French home is entirely cepfree. (Replete sigh.)