Conversations in the Dordogne at this time of the year nearly always turn to one of the country’s favourite subjects – the allusive, wild mushroom, Le Cèpe du Périgord. I love listening to these conversations as the French are passionate about cèpes and amusingly move from excited chatter to throwing their arms up in the air in complete despair when they have to admit that they haven’t yet managed to find any.

Top secret

Finding a cèpe is not easy and success is top secret. It is impossible to get anyone to tell you where they find theirs. Even your French friends will draw the line at that. And if you go out looking, be careful where you look as some people take it very, very seriously and are of the opinion that you have no right to be looking where they do, even if it’s a public place. Attention! If you are seen on their “patch”, you might find that when you get back to the car your tyres have been slashed.

Le Cèpe du Périgord is a large, fat mushroom that grows in forests around oak and chestnut trees. Its ideal growing conditions are heat followed by rain so the end of September/October has traditionally been the time when they appear the most. Le Cèpe du Périgord grows quickly and one friend told me of her amazement at how she came back to a spot where she had previously looked an hour before and a cèpe had grown while she was away looking for others.

The cèpe that everyone is after is the tête noire which has a dark cap, spongy pores and a thick stem. They taste woody and when cooked are quite meaty. Cèpes are rich in protein, vitamins, mineral salts and fibre.

If you do decide to take your life into your own hands, it is advisable to take a knife with you to gently remove the cèpe from the ground and place it in a basket so that it can breathe. If you are lucky enough to find one, don’t wash it but wipe gently with a damp tea towel.

Mushroom markets

In the Dordogne, there are markets dedicated to mushrooms during the mushroom season. The most well-known ones are Villefranche du Périgord, Monpazier, Mussidan and Saint-Saud Lacoussière. Starting times vary according to weather conditions but you can normally find out from the local mairie.

Be careful of poisonous mushrooms which normally have orange-red spores. If in doubt, pharmacies in France offer an advice service on what is a safe mushroom and ones to absolutely avoid eating.

The easiest way to cook cèpes is to cut into think slices and sauté in duck fat with fresh garlic and chopped parsley. It’s important to use duck fat instead of olive oil or butter so that you get the real taste of Périgord. I always keep a pot of it in my fridge.