It's a little-known fact that the pharmacist at any corner drugstore in France will tell you whether the mushrooms you picked in your front yard, or the backwoods, or along the roadside are indeed delicious cepes – in which case you heat up the omelet pan – or whether you should hang a “danger de mort” skull-and-crossbones sign on them like you see on the electrified rail of the commuter trains.
I am willing to bet that very few Americans know of this handy mushroom service.
Autumn is the season for cepes, those large, meaty wild mushrooms that rank just short of the truffle as a cook's prize. In season, the woods are filled with mushroom hunters and woe betide the foreigner who jumps a resident's claimed territory. It was then that I came to the conclusion that our front yard contained a fortune in cepes or 100 omelets, maybe both. With excitement growing by the moment, I explained my plan to my wife, who knows her way around the kitchen far better than I.
A distinct lack of enthusiasm.
Albeit reluctantly, she finally was willing to trust the French pharmacist, but cringed at the embarrassment of presenting a bad mushroom. The French are supercilious enough when you are right (here I avoid the use of the term “dead right”). She could only imagine the ridicule if we brought in a mushroom that every French schoolchild learns to shun.
Me? I have endured ridicule for many years in France. I am used to it. I headed for the drugstore with my bag full of lawn-variety mushrooms. The local pharmacy even contained a window chart showing the mushrooms of autumn, many of which bore some resemblance to those I was carrying.
I waited for the crowd of pharmacy customers to thin, then presented my cache. After recovering from his initial shock, the pharmacist asked if I was French.
“American,” I replied.
He nodded. This explained everything.
His shock turned into a general outpouring of mirth throughout the drugstore. The pharmacist called his assistant and three trainee pharmacists from another room, all of whom joined in the merriment. Several customers could hardly contain themselves.
Finally the pharmacist dried his eyes and delivered a few hundred well-chosen words, one of which – mort – seemed to be repeated over and over. I got the point and turned to leave.
“Twenty euros please,” the pharmacist said in English. Ah, but of course. In France there is no such thing as a free lunch, even of wild mushrooms.
“For identifying my mushrooms?” I asked in mock horror.
“For saving your life,” the pharmacist replied in English. He the repeated it in French for the benefit of, by now, a large audience which included shopkeepers from along the block.