When my uncle first mentioned that my cousin had purchased a chateau in France, I imagined that a chateau was some kind of rustic country house. In this case, it turns out that chateau meant closer to ‘castle’, complete with a turret that houses the staircase from basement to attic. Though it’s in a bit of disrepair (and has salamanders invading the basement), everything seems intact.
It also apparently came with several other buildings on the property, including a stone farmhouse and chicken coop. These buildings are also looking worse for wear, but they make for beautiful photos.
Nothing a bit of hard work can’t fix, right?
The chateau also comes with a guardian in the form of Drago, the chubby dog owned by the farmer next door. He bounds up to meet us when we arrive, on the heels of my uncle. The entire back half of Drago’s body wags when my uncle pulls bags of treats from a drawer in the chateau’s kitchen.
Drago follows us for walks in the nearby woods, which is the primary activity in our days. We wander through the trees, still verdant despite the increasing chill each morning, and forage for fallen chestnuts or document the fungi we find.
Back at the chateau, we use the oven to bake our foraged chestnuts and huddle in the kitchen over bowls of warm chicken soup. We visited a nearby supermarket, Super U, when we first arrived and bought some chicken and vegetables. They don’t seem like anything special, but they taste far better than anything from the U.S. supermarkets. The food really is just better in France.
If you couldn’t already tell from the mushroom foraging adventure in Australia and the hundreds of mushroom photos on this blog, I love fungi. They’re an underappreciated group, which is unfair because some of them taste delicious. But you could spend all day trying to convince people to eat shaggy manes and wine caps from their backyards and get nowhere*.
Not so with the truffle, the beloved subterranean nugget prized for its rich, heavenly flavor that now appears in everything from fries to honey in our most upscale restaurants. We shave tiny flakes of it into pastas, buy real and imitation extracts, and ogle tiny chunks of the fresh stuff protected in temperature- and humidity-controlled glass cases in only the finest of gourmet grocers. If there is royalty in the mushroom culinary world, the truffle is king.
And now we’re getting a lesson in hunting them here in Prague! This is all thanks my amazing friend and mentor Zoë, who gifted Stoytcho and I a truffle-hunting lesson with the man who supplies 80% of Prague’s restaurants with the delicacy, Petr Synek.
Petr meets us and another guest on a warm morning at the park, a large gray hunting dog tugging him along. “This is Nela,” Petr tells us as he kneels down to let her off the leash. Nela immediately bolts off and runs circles in the fields, “She has a lot of energy, which is good for hunting truffles,” Petr laughs as he calls her back in Czech. Nela bounds back to him, and he begins the lesson.
First, Petr describes the three ways people hunt for truffles: alone, with pigs, and with dogs. “Some people are able to detect small clouds of flies right near the truffles and know where to dig, but you miss most of the best specimens if you rely on this, so most people have pigs or train dogs,” Petr says. Historically, pigs were used because they were naturally attracted to the truffle scent, but they also love to eat truffles and hunters risk losing the truffle (and a few fingers) in the battle to get it back. “You see many old truffle hunters with four, three fingers, or parts of fingers missing, because they have to put their hand in the mouth of the pig to try and get a truffle.”
Nowadays, most truffle hunters train dogs to find the prize. Petr describes how the Italians traditionally rub truffle oil on the nipples of breastfeeding dogs to train them, though doing so means that the dog will later show the same risk of trying to eat the truffle. And Nela? “She’s trained in the Czech way, because we have a history of training dogs here during the Communist era,” Peter winks. He says another command in Czech and Nela bounds up. She knows it is time for training and treat-getting to begin.
Petr walks us through Nela’s training, from the simple conditioning of associating a click noise with treats to finding a location that a truffle-oil soaked towel is hidden. Along the way, he points out the main pitfalls in training truffle-hunting dogs. First is the dog’s gender – you want a female dog, because sometimes a male dog will chase the scent of a female dog instead of a truffle, and you won’t know it for miles. Second is always training the dog with the same tools or in the same location, because she learns to associate treats with a location and not necessarily the truffle scent. And third is using only one source of truffle scent – the oil is cheaper to use in training than real truffles, but it doesn’t exactly replicate the scent of a true truffle. While Petr explains this, he trains Nela, hiding the oil-soaked towel in different places and rewarding her with treats as she finds it.
After training practice, our group walks further into the park where the trees shade us and the ground foliage is denser. Petr pulls a napkin-lined box out of his bag and opens it to reveal the real deal. They look like a black bark-covered nugget, but the scent gives it away as a truffle. “This is a black truffle. I only hunt black, summer, and some winter truffles,” he explains, “because white truffles are the most expensive and people are very territorial of their hunting grounds and will shoot rivals’ dogs.” Petr passes a truffle out to each of us and instructs us to hide it. We dash off while he distracts Nela with games.
The three of us choose different locations, all about 100 feet away from each other. One of us hides a truffle in the roots of a tree; another hides it among the rocky outcrops off the trail. One of us puts it in a small hole under a rock. We return to Petr, who says a magic word and Nela is off, hunting for the scent of truffles. It’s easy for her to smell them in the warm morning air, and she finds all three in only a few minutes.
After the lesson, the four of us return to Prague for a visit to a restaurant that buys Petr’s truffles. He arranges lunch as a part of the lesson, and the three of us get heaping plates of fresh pasta, chicken, and shaved truffle. He also gives us each a parting gift – half of a truffle each to take home and use. “Put it into the food at the end of cooking so it retains the most flavor, and use it in eggs, with pasta, or in a sauce. Enjoy!”
Nearly every city or town we visited in Russia had a statue of Lenin. You’d go to the main square, and there was a Lenin. You’d get off the train at a stop along the trans-Siberian, and you’d find a Lenin. You’d be walking around downtown and find a Lenin. Lenin, Lenin, Lenin.
To people from the U.S. or Western Europe, this might be baffling. “Isn’t the Soviet Union dead? Isn’t the Communist experiment over in Russia?” they might ask. But Lenin’s continued popularity doesn’t seem to have as much to do with Communism as with Russia’s image as a great country. Lenin is a great man to Russia not because he brought about Communism, but because he grew the Russian sphere of influence. He made Russia more productive, more powerful. As someone we met on our travels put it “Lenin was a great man, a thinker, an intellectual. He did great things for Russia.*” So in honor of that, here’s where we spotted Lenin in Russia:
This glorification of Lenin is an interesting contrast to his treatment in the rest of Eastern and Central Europe, where Lenin statues lie unloved in storage or have been moved to memorial parks, long since removed from their original posts. If you’re looking for more info, there’s a fascinating website on the Communist monuments of Eastern Europe and the Balkans here.
Oh, and the only place we didn’t see a Lenin was in St. Petersburg (although I’m sure he’s around if you search hard enough). Instead, we got this guy greeting us at the train station:
*When we asked the same person about Stalin, their response was, “Stalin…was both good and bad. He did good things. But he was scary. So not many statues of Stalin.”
Japan is crazy about collecting things, but we haven’t collected much here in Japan beyond a handful gacha toys and fountain pen ink so it’s time to fix that. For our last stop in Japan, we head to a beach in Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture in search of jade (ヒスイ). While the beach in this whole region is known for jade, Itoigawa is the closest stop to us via the Shinkansen, so using our JR pass we set out one last time.
Itoigawa itself is quiet when we arrive, the streets devoid of people and cars during a work day. We pick up a map and some advice from the mini-museum/visitor’s center behind the train station, then walk toward the beach. There’s a highway between us and the shoreline, so we have to go about half a mile north before we find an underpass with beach access. Nearby, we find a 7-11 and grab lunch.
The beach is a pebbly stretch dotted here and there with piles of concrete tetrapods to prevent erosion. It doesn’t look like much until you’re standing on the pebbles and look down to find the stones glisten with a rainbow of colors. There are green, purple, red, white, brown, and black stones of all shapes and sizes. To find jade, we know we should be looking for stones that feel heavy for their weight and are smooth and cool to the touch, but the color can range from white to green to purple to black. Time to start collecting.
Though it’s a work day, we’re not the only ones on the beach. Other folks on holiday are here too, combing the beach for jade and other treasures and dodging the surf that occasionally rushes past the bowl-shape of the water’s edge.
At the end of two hours, we’ve collected more than a kilo of stones and it’s time to decide what we want to keep. We try to be picky, because everything we take we either have to carry in our packs or have to send through the mail. We pick out the pieces most likely to be jade, then add in pieces we like for their color or shape. Our favorites are a tan colored stone etched with red and brown impurities, forming the patterns of hills or lakes or planets. We’ve found only five of them in our hours of collecting, so we keep them all.
After we finish up, we walk the beach and watch the other collectors with their bags slung over their shoulders, crouched down with hands sifting through the pebbles. The sound is unique, more treble than the ocean’s movement of stones, and reminds me of the sound candy-coated almonds make when you shake a box. The clinking of dozens of stones continues, as does the craze of collecting things.
Today’s mission will test the limits of my Japanese skills, dragging me from the comfort of casual conversation into unknown waters. For today, we are looking for a specific store that has eluded many. The man that runs it, Uehara Yūichi (植原友一), is one of the few students of the late fountain pen maker Uehara Eiichi. Online rumor is that Yūichi*, who still makes all of his pens by hand from Ebonite, is somewhere here in Sendai, at a store called ōhashi dō.
If you ask Google Maps for “ōhashi dō, Sendai” (which is大橋堂, 仙台), it will direct you to 3 Chome-8-5-Chuo, a nondescript gray building just southwest of Sendai Station that houses a fish market. We knew from prior reports online that we would need to do more work if we actually wanted to find Yūichi. We tried the phone number on Google Maps, but got no answer. Hoping that the fountain pen community would know his whereabouts, we continued our search at on the pen floor of Sendai’s Marzuen, where we soon had three employees dutifully trying to help us reach Yūichi. They tried called him (but again got no answer), looked ōhashi dō up online, and eventually printed the Google Maps directions out for us. But the most valuable information they provided was that ōhashi dō as a storefront no longer existed, gone with the late Uehara-san’s death. His apprentices mostly sold pens at pen shows while traveling around the country, meaning that Yūichi may not be in town. Darn.
Still, nothing ventured and nothing gained: we walked over to 3 Chome-8-5 Chuo in hopes of finding Yūichi. When we arrived the local fish market was bustling with midday shoppers and the lunch crowd. We walked through, hoping to find some sign of fountain pens through the seafood smell, but no luck. I finally approached the employee of one of the fish stalls and asked “Do you know where Ohashi-Do is?” The woman gave me a smile and said “Well, since you asked so sweetly!” and disappeared for a few seconds. Then she returned and handed me a pair of chopsticks.
For those of you who speak Japanese, I hope you’re laughing. For those that don’t, “O-hashi” would be an honorific way to refer to chopsticks, so the fish market employee thought I had asked her *very politely* where I could find some chopsticks. At the time, I was confused for a second, then laughed with embarrassment. “No, no,” I told her. “I’m sorry, I meant ōhashi dō. It’s a store that sells fountain pens.” The market employee began to laugh, too. “Ah, I’m sorry! I thought you asked for chopsticks. I don’t know where the store is, but I can ask.” In minutes she helped us find a guy who knew where Yūichi was, and directed us to a room number three or four floors up.
We went around to the back of the building and took the elevator up to what seemed like apartments. In a few minutes we found the right room, with the door ajar. We knocked, and a friendly-looking man appeared at the door. It was Uehara Yūichi! He was indeed in Sendai and happy to show us his current pens for sale, with the usual Japanese-style apologies for the messy state of the workshop. Stoytcho sat down to try them and was in heaven. I, meanwhile, attempted to translate as Yūichi half-described, half-pantomimed the creation process here in his workshop. A bit of a difficult process, given that I didn’t know technical words like nib, slider ring, and lathe. I could hardly keep the word 万年筆 in my head, and cannot thank Yūichi enough for his patience while I stumbled through translating for him and Stoytcho.
Pen aficionados talk about the simple and elegant beauty of the handmade ōhashi dō pens, but it’s hard to appreciate their magic until you’ve held one. I know little about pens, but even I can feel the precise art and painstaking labor given to the pen as I hold it. Even though we’ve spent the last two weeks visiting every fountain pen store we’ve found in Japan, where Stoytcho has tried countless Pilots, Pelicans, Sailors, and Mont Blancs, he marveled at the feel of the Ebonite pen body and the flawless fit and finish of each ōhashi dō pen he tried. For those of you that love fountain pens, the ōhashi dō pens aren’t flashy, but they feel like the essence, the Platonic ideal of a fountain pen**, worth feeling at least once in a lifetime. Brush up on your Japanese and find Uehara Yūichi.
* I hope Uehara Yūichi can forgive me for using his first name frequently in this post. It’s not common to use first names in Japan unless you’re very close with the person, but is common in English and I didn’t want anyone to confuse him with the late Uehara Eiichi.
** This is Stoytcho’s statement, not mine, which lends it much more credence since this is his obsessive hobby.
Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!
We’ve been trying to find things to occupy our time (besides catching up on the nearly 50-strong backlogged blog posts), and last week I found out about a foraging and wild food workshop led by Diego Bonetto. He offers tons of plant foraging workshops, but the one that caught my eye was a mushroom foraging workshop—the first of Australia’s season, thanks to the overwhelming abundance of rain in the last two weeks. I signed up and got my wicker basket and kitchen knife ready.
The workshop takes place in state forests two hours outside of Sydney, so Diego offered transport to those of us without cars. I’m up at 5:30 am to catch the train to the meeting spot at 6:45 am. Diego meets us cheerfully, and all of us pile into a van and drove out of Sydney on the M31 highway. After half an hour, the city gives way to countryside. Diego points out plants from the car. “That’s fennel. It’s a good food and medicinal herb. Those trees there are wild apples. They grow from discarded apple cores.” It’s amazing that he can recognize the plants at a glimpse from the highway.
When we arrive at our first foraging ground, we meet the rest of the attendees and gather around a table to begin the workshop. He first gives thanks to the original Aboriginal tribe who once inhabited the land and acknowledges previous generations who carried the knowledge of the environment to the present day. “Knowledge doesn’t belong to one person, or one group. It belongs to everyone. That’s why I’m sharing it with you,” he told us. Then he gives us the first assignment: go into the woods and pick everything we see that looks like a mushroom, put it in our baskets, and bring it back to the table for show and tell.
I experience a brief pang of trepidation at the thought of putting any mushroom into my basket. Many species are inedible or poisonous, and the thought of them jostling around in my basket isn’t a comforting one. Still, we trudge into the forest and start picking mushrooms—a slimy orange-capped one here, a lemon yellow one with brown “fur” there, and a thin-stalked tiny thimble over there. In fifteen minutes I’ve gathered at least 10 different species, and I’m still finding more. The prolific rain has produced a bounty.
Near the end of my collecting I stumble across what appears to be an all-too-familiar mushroom – the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria. I’m hesitant to cut one and put it in my basket. A. muscaria shares a genus with the famously deadly Amanita phalloides, the death cap, and Amanita bisporigera, the destroying angel. A single mushroom of either of these species is often enough to kill a person. While A. muscaria is nowhere near as toxic, it can still induce nausea and vomiting. And as one of the most cosmopolitan mushrooms in the world, it would be a good one to teach others. I cut three specimens in various stages of development and place them in my basket.
Back at the table, Diego instructs us to put the mushrooms we’ve found on the table. “Pick out the unique ones, especially ones not on the table yet,” he suggests, as we pile dozens of mushrooms before him. Once most of the mushrooms are out, he begins sorting them into groups based on similarity until we have more than a dozen piles of different mushrooms. He points at two piles and says “Look at these two. These are the two species that are edible and you want to collect. This one,” he gestures to a pile of dark, slime-capped mushrooms, “are Slippery Jills. Edible and good. They’re usually later in the season, so we won’t find many now. And these,” he gestures to another of orange-white capped, hearty mushrooms, “these are the saffron milk cap, also called the pine mushroom. Also edible and delicious. This is what we’re here for today.”
One of the attendees pipes up, “what about the rest of them?” Diego grins and responds, “What about them? I don’t know them, and I wouldn’t trust myself to identify them safely enough to eat.” Then he picks up a saffron milk cap and a similar-looking orange mushroom and asks, “What differences do you see?” We spend several minutes examining our piles of mushrooms and I realize how brilliant this exercise is: it teaches you not only the mushrooms you’re looking for, but also how to distinguish them from other mushrooms around at the same time of year. It’s a physical exercise of the mushroom forager’s mantra “When in doubt, leave it out.”
We pile back into Diego’s car and drive down to our main foraging ground: Belanglo State Forest. While historically known for more sordid things, Belanglo is primarily planted pine forest and so ideal for finding pine mushrooms. Around this time of year it becomes an epicenter for Polish visitors because of the huge number of pine mushrooms that sprout every fall. When we arrive at the forest, we find campers there already busy with collecting.
Diego sets up his cooking equipment at one of the picnic tables and sends us into the forest to find mushrooms. If we had any worries that we would have to compete with the campers already there, they disappear as soon as we step between the trees: hundreds of pine mushroom caps dot the landscape, as far as you can see between the rows of trees. They intersperse with clusters of fly agarics and a plethora of other mushrooms I don’t recognize. I ignore these and focus on collecting only the best quality pine mushrooms: firm fleshed and not wobbly (wobbly means the inside has been eaten by insects), brightly colored with no bruising. With the panoply of pine mushrooms at my feet, I can afford to be choosy.
I fill my basket half-full with mushrooms, reluctant to take more than I can eat in the next few days, and return to the picnic table where Diego is frying a few pine mushroom caps. In the meantime, he passes around a pickled version of pine mushrooms for us to share, and someone starts slicing bread. We stand around eating pine mushrooms and share stories. We talk about what it is to forage food from the wild. One person is here to learn about the land. Another is an aspiring chef who worked in a wild food restaurant and got hooked on the idea of foraging his food. Others are people who just want to know, to have the knowledge of their surroundings.
Back at home, I clean the mushrooms and prep them for cooking. I’m personally a fan of drowning them in cream and serving them on pasta, but there are so many that I’ll have to branch out. I cook a hearty serving of the aforementioned creamy mushroom pasta, then turn the rest into a tomato and mushroom stir-fry known in Turkish as sucuk. It’s all delicious (and, regrettably, I photographed none of it). As I’m cooking, I remember one of the things Diego mentioned at our communal meal: “The food here isn’t free. You’re taking it from nature, and even if it sounds hippie, you should give respect and thanks in your own way.” I have my own ritual of giving thanks – bowing three times and remembering where my food comes from.
ntro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!
I love searching for things. I’ve been on fossil digs around California, used to trawl estate sales in college for rare books, and spent my spare time in grad school foraging for edible plants and fungi. This also worked out pretty well in my graduate research, where there was a lot of searching how to do things, trying the things, and then searching for new ways to do things when those things failed. Five and a half years of that gets you pretty good at searching.
Wonderfully, Australia is one of those places where you can search for precious stones and minerals and keep them, which they call fossicking. Several parcels of land throughout the country are open to fossickers to collect everything from gold to opals, sapphires, rubies, zircon, and diamonds. Rules for fossicking vary by state, but in New South Wales you can purchase a permit ($27.5 AUD a year) to go fossicking in State Forests. They even have State Forest areas where you’re allowed to fossick without a permit. Update: I can’t find information on the permit-free fossicking areas, so the rules might have changed.
Located 3 hours from Sydney (without traffic), Oberon is a little town on the other side of the Blue Mountains with several locations for fossicking without a permit. Though it’s accessible by public transit, the fossicking site aren’t: you can take a regional train out of Sydney to Bathurst and a bus from Bathurst to Oberon, but the fossicking sites are located 20 km or more south of the town. If you go by public transit, you’ll have to hitchhike or walk the rest of the way. Thankfully, I have awesome friends in Australia. Hugh drove all the way from Lake Cargelligo to come visit us in Sydney, and when we explained our fossicking plans he happily joined us. Transit solved!
Then we had to come up with fossicking materials. The standard fossicking kit comprises a shovel/trowel for moving dirt, a set of differently-sized strainers for separating stones, and a wide shallow pan for panning. We weren’t keen on spending a lot of money on these materials, so we went to the local Vinnie’s (a thrift store) and picked out the following: a colander and a large ceramic bowl. To that we added our aluminum pot from our camp stove kit for panning and the trowel from our camping kit.
We left Sydney late, so we camped one night at Millionth Acre and nearly destroyed Hugh’s car. It turns out that the main campsite is really only accessible by 4WD, but this is what you get when it’s late and you just look up the nearest campsite in Australia. After nearly getting stuck driving down a hill, we pushed the car out of its rut and found a flat-ish site to pitch the tent. In the morning, were greeted by kangaroos and jumping jacks, a type of venomous ant (Stoytcho says: Thanks, Australia). We decamped and drove on to Oberon.
Our first stop in Oberon was for coffee, and our second was at the tourism office for fossicking information. A woman there provided us with maps, plenty of advice on the different fossicking sites, and the recommendation that if we see an older gent in a white truck, we should say hello because he’s been fossicking down there forever. (Note: This guy is apparently well-known and famous). Armed with information, we decided to try Sapphire Bend for two main reasons: it was the closest, and it had a water supply in a nearby dam that we could use to wash our finds. We also had a pretty sweet hand-drawn map of the location:
Sapphire Bend wasn’t hard to find—we drove south from Oberon on Abercrombie Road for 20 km, then turned left at the first campsite we saw (Black Springs), and then made the second left onto a dirt road (River View Road). Though there was a lot of dust, we could manage the road in Hugh’s non-4×4 car. We drove past endless stands of pine trees, the remnants of pine plantations from a logging company. A few km down on the left there was a huge sign displaying the words “Public Fossicking Area”. Surrounding it were dozens of shallow holes, remnants of fossickers come and gone.
We started off by hiking, following the foot trails laced through the public fossicking area to figure out where would be best to search. Our first sapphire is a lucky find on the tailings of someone’s hole. It had a sheared face that glinted like a mirror in the sun, making it easy to spot. Holding it up to the sunlight, it looked like a piece of blue glass.
After pocketing the first sapphire, we loaded a few pails of dirt into our pot and bowl, then returned to the car and drove to a nearby pond to begin sifting through it. We’d put a small handful of dirt through the colander with a bowl underneath, then dump water on top of it to wash the smaller rocks through. After picking through the big rocks (which inevitably had nothing), we’d discard them and look through the smaller rocks and silt collected in the bowl below. We found a couple more sapphires and a lot of quartz crystals.
Stoytcho and I returned to Sydney but wanted to do more fossicking, so we booked a car for a couple of days the following week. I also did more research on fossicking forums to help us identify good places to search, which mostly came down to learning to identify the wash layer; it’s the layer with all the pebbles/rocks deposited by a stream bed, and the most likely place to find sapphires. To improve our gear, we visited a local hardware store for mesh and scrounged up a bucket to make a strainer with a finer mesh size than the colander:
On our second trip out to Sapphire Bend, we camped at Black Springs Campsite up the road. This worked out perfectly, because the site was quiet and had water and restrooms. Heavy rains from the last few days had filled many of the fossicking holes with water, meaning we didn’t have to drive out to the pond to get water. We looked through less filled holes for a wash layer, started fossicking, and managed one more sapphire. The old guy mentioned by the Oberon Tourism Office even stopped by for a chat and with a wink, he pointed out a few “good” holes. He knew his stuff.
By day’s end, we’d collected a dozen potential sapphires and zircons (including one huge chunk of sapphire), as well as a couple dozen small pieces of potential black spinel. Fossicking was hard work, much less standing and moving and much more sitting, patiently sifting through bits of rock in search of glassy glints in the sunlight. But there’s nothing like the excitement of searching for something and finding it.
Want to fossick yourself? You can rent a kit from Oberon’s tourism office.
Fossicking with a permit and want to know what’s around? You can find a great map (maintained by local NSW fossickers) here.