Feasting on the Forest

October 29, 2016

‘Weißt du, was wir hier gefunden haben?’ my host Brigitte asks. ‘Ein Schatz! Ein Schatz.’ Do you know what we have found here? A treasure! A treasure.

We have been swimming through the undergrowth of the Black Forest for three quarters of an hour, hunting mushrooms. The hikers’ trail is only a memory, a ribbon of satin afternoon, soft and yellow, lost somewhere far below us. We climbed this ridge following Brigitte’s nose. ‘The finest mushrooms smell like flowers,’ she explains in German. A true polyglot, she has mastered not only a pocketful of human tongues, but also this secret language of mushrooms, a language of color, aroma, and coincidence. As we dive through the torn undergrowth, she points out a constellation of starry white mushrooms, tiny as the lights that prick the night sky. ‘I read what the forest leaves here, even if it isn’t for me,’ she says. ‘I learn from the woods.’

Reading the forest, she has followed the clues to this Schatz, this treasure, buried in the deepest shadows of the Schwarzwald. She has found Pfifferlinge, chanterelle mushrooms, one of the most prized fungi in a chef’s cellar. We gather the treasure tenderly, cradling the stems between gentle fingers as we free them from the loam. ‘Dankeschön,’ Brigitte says to the forest, and I echo her. Gratefulness is an interspecies language.

As we follow Pfifferlinge along the brow of the wooded ridge, we find a world of mushrooms. Demure, fawny Steinpilze go into the basket, but fairytale Fliegenpilze we leave in their white-speckled peace. The red-capped hallucinogens would throw us deep into delirious technicolor wonderlands of our own.

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Where dustmotes hang like fairylights, we find fragile, gilded mushrooms alongside their violet twins. They look like dewy debutantes at a ball, sisters in silk rustlings, their skirts fluted like crinolines.

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We pick according to Brigitte’s firm philosophy. Never take the whole crop. Leave some for the forest. So with a basket half-full, we leave the silken sisters under the thousand suns of yellow-glowing spruce leaves.

‘Es ist wie Paradies,’ she repeats with each handful of wonder we find scattered across our path. It is like paradise. You should never work in the forest, she teaches me. Just wander, gathering what falls into your path. Nature is so generous.

We are half-lost now, far from the original trail. ‘Hansel und Gretel, verirrten sich im Wald,’ she sings to the piping birds. Hansel and Gretel, lost themselves in the woods. ‘It is a different forest every year,’ she tells me.

Soon, the densely woven evergreens unravel and we look out over the valley of Ottenhöfen im Schwarzwald, her postcard village. Across the valley, the green hills have begun to rust at Autumn’s touch, and a patina colors the woods in the halcyon hues of old October.

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We reach the village with our half basket of mushrooms and a sack of wild chestnuts, gathered in twos and threes according to Brigitte’s philosophy of Nature’s generosity. And the ‘Kirsche auf dem Kuchen,’ the cherry on the cake, is the pair of Parasolpilze we hold before us like gnomish umbrellas. Longer than my hand, the parasol mushrooms promise a rich forest feast.

With chestnuts roasting on the hob, Brigitte sautés our treasure with onions, herbs and a splash of wine. Night unfolds from the forest, swathing the room in shadow. Under the shallow light of two candles, Brigitte sets the table and we feast on the forest’s gift.

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