Cycling and foraging – or striking white gold in Wallonia’s tracks and trails

If you want to find the way to the heart of most cycling enthusiasts it can be mapped out in three simple steps:

  • Cycling
  • Cycling and food
  • Cycling and free food

I can live by that code, which is why one of my favourite times of year is when the countryside is littered with free food, ready to be spotted by the sharp-eyed walker or cyclist. Even if I don’t feel like stopping there is a chance to mark a spot for returning with a bag and capturing the bounty. I am no expert, but blackberries and sloes are safe choices.

With our topsy-turvy summer here in Belgium nature is completely confused about the seasons. August is not yet out and the sun has begun to shine again, but last week’s cold wet spell means some trees have already decided it is time to turn orange. However what it has also brought is an absolute profusion of early fungi, mushrooms of all kinds bursting out in the fields, well ahead of the season for some species. And that’s where I struck pure gold this weekend – white gold.

My friend Stuart had already shared a healthy supply of field mushrooms and blackberries this year so when he and I were out mountain biking on Sunday he was mentioning out good spots to keep an eye on. But when we split up to head home I was heading down a small track by some houses when I spotted what looked like discarded plastic footballs in a bank, one of them squashed by a car. It only took a few seconds to slam on the brakes, skid to a halt and spin round as knowledge learned at my father’s knee kicked in.

Yes – Giant Puffballs – the first I have seen in years, certainly the first in Belgium. And when I have caught them back in the UK they had become the beige balls of dusty spores that give them their common name.

Photo by Kevin MayneBut these were big and bright and white, with firm flesh that was probably only a few days old, despite the large size. They are unmistakeable – and therefore very high on the list of “safest mushrooms” for foragers.

But what to do – a fungus the size of a football really lends itself to an old-fashioned touring bike with empty saddlebag, not the sparse surfaces of a mountain bike and a shirt of lycra. Come back with a big bag? Surely someone in Belgium would recognise the treasure and steal them from me? Or run them over again. Can’t take the risk.

So I carefully levered a man sized portion off the side of the biggest puffball, in itself only about a third of the fruit ball, emptied my largest pocket and gently squeezed it in, promising myself breakfast at the end of the ride. It could have been a strange sight, a man with an extra buttock on his lower back, but image is never my greatest concern in these scenarios.

They can be added to an old school fry-up, but by the time I got home second breakfast was fully created in my head and the frying pan was on seconds after I got inside the door.

My recipe for my turning the white flesh gold is puffball fritters:

Peel and slice into sections the size of a piece of toast.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Dip into a mixture of lightly salted beaten egg.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Fry in oil until golden, adding a knob of butter at the end for extra yumminess if desired.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Take outside and munch with a couple of slices of buttered bread.

Next week – I guess I will have to take Stuart to the spot and we can share the rest of the haul, but it’s a very good excuse for the choice of route.

Must remember a bag!

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