Travel: Think of it as a morel victory: She didn't know a cep from an elf cup, but Rose Shepherd still had a wonderful time mushroom hunting in Normandy

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
It was dark and dripping wet in the forest of Andaine. And chill and fresh and lovely. When the sun broke through, the dying bracken blazed. Then we would hear more rain rattling in the canopy above, and it would gradually percolate through. Lovely weather for mushrooms.

More than 200 species of fungi abound in this ancient mixed woodland, but you need to know where to hunt, and for what. We'd hoped for an expert guide - a person, not a book. But in the end we had resorted to the handy Collins Gem Guide. As so often happens, we had set out with everything ordered and organised, and worked backwards from there.

We had arrived the day before in Dieppe, where the ferry sets you down at the heart of the town. Shops, bars, bistros are all within strolling distance. We, however, were simply passing through en route to Bagnoles-de-l'Orne, 150 miles away.

The N27 breezed us into Rouen, which has rather overrun itself with mile on mile of Conforamas and Carrefours and car showrooms. The N138 breezed us out, and through the Eure.

The lush green landscape and capricious weather, warm apricot sunlight one minute and torrential rain the next, were reminiscent of rural Kent. The architecture - timbered houses and mansions with steep-pitched slate roofs, rose-coloured brick, thatch - was quintessentially Norman. The 'bespectacled' brown- and-white dairy cows, to which Norman cuisine owes much of its cholesterol, grazed on gentle hillsides. Vegetables grew in neat drills in cottage gardens, with here and there a brilliant clump of Michaelmas daisies. There was a strong apple tang in the air.

Between the forests of Ecouves and Andaine is Bagnoles, a small, spruce spa town, whose radioactive springs are said to be good for circulation troubles and obesity. Surprisingly, this pocket-sized town sustains a casino, its elegant white building reflected in a lake in a public park fed by the Vie.

Three kilometres away, on the D335, on the edge of the forest, stands the Manoir du Lys. 'Delightful little manor with a delightful welcome,' says the guidebook (Arthur Eperon's Normandy), 'and delicious cooking by Paul Quinton, patron- chef; in autumn he takes guests into the forest, teaches them to identify fungi, then shows them how to cook them. Nice garden. Tennis. Charming bedrooms.'

All of this, we can endorse. The hotel was bigger and posher and pricier than I had imagined, a serious three-star enterprise (when I find in the bathroom a hairdrier and one of those spotlit mirrors that tell you more than you would wish to know, I always fret that we have gone over budget). But Marie-France and Paul Quinton have put 15 years of hard work into the business, house and garden are beautifully maintained, the staff are unfailingly friendly and courteous, and the value for money is unquestionable.

Only one slight difficulte . . . A friend of ours, a fluent French speaker, had telephoned to check that these forays into the forest were indeed a feature, and had been assured that someone would be pleased to accompany us. However, Laure Epp, who helps to manage the place, and who is engaged to the Quintons' son Franck, told us regretfully, in near-perfect English, that whoever had taken our booking had made no note of this conversation.

Paul Quinton is a man of considerable grace and charm, quite without pretensions. He emerged from the kitchen to join the debate, seemed genuinely concerned that we were disappointed and, busy though he was, he offered us an hour of his precious time the next morning.

Outside, it was pouring. Our desire to hunt for mushrooms seemed suddenly frivolous. We are not, after all, serious fungus fanciers. I am merely taken with the idea of looking for things. So we declined his kind offer and opted to go it alone.

That evening, before dinner, Paul Quinton drove us into Bagnoles, to the purpose-built modern youth centre. While, downstairs, young ballet students practised their plies, in an upstairs room redolent of mushrooms, some 120 varieties of fungus - the fruits of a day's labour for 40 mycologists, both expert and amateur - had been laid out on paper plates, each neatly labelled with a Post-It note. In accordance with good conservation practice, they had picked only one or two specimens of each. The range was extraordinary, from big, spongy cauliflower fungus right down to a minute speck on a holly leaf, only really visible through a magnifying glass.

There were ceps, girolles, morels, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, as well as some less familiar edible delights. 'Edible, incredible]' said the guy in charge, enjoying the rhyming of the words.

Fine distinctions were pointed out between this family member and that one. Here was the edible Boletus edulis, the much sought-after cep, porcino or penny- bun; then here was Boletus luridus, described by the Collins guide as 'suspicious'. Here was an edible toadstool, to be distinguished from its poisonous cousins by a faint red-wine blush. Here was one with a faint identifying smell of almonds; here another that reeked of potatoes. And the more I looked and sniffed, it seemed, the less I knew.

Out on our own the next morning, we had a chance to put our unlearning to the test. I could have recognised at a glance a giant puffball, or fly agaric, the red-and- white spotty toadstool of toadstools. I would have recognised the exhibitionist stinkhorn, which, improbably, is said to be edible, never mind that it is readily detected by a smell of bad drains.

But was this saucer-shaped fungus sprouting from a dead stump a blushing bracket or a Coriolus versicolor? Would I know my lethal Amanita from my elf cup? How can a violet-coloured amethyst deceiver be all right on toast, when the more innocent-looking deathcaps and destroying angels can cause terminal damage to internal organs?

At this point it seemed idle to pick any of them. Better to come back next autumn, when Paul Quinton will be conducting more mushroom weekends, and when groups of mycologists from England will be particularly welcome. Better to come back in sensible shoes. Better still, in Wellington boots.

Until then, there are many more reasons to visit the Manoir du Lys. The large bedrooms with balconies, for instance, and the warmth and comfort of the hotel, where on cold days a wood fire burns in the lounge, and where, for foodies, there are meals served in a smart and spacious dining-room.

Dinner was prefaced by a small complimentary cup of wild mushroom soup and home-made bread. We ate ravioli so thin it was almost transparent, filled with Normandy cheeses, served with a mosaic of finely chopped vegetables and a light cider sauce, followed by fillets of sole on a bed of fennel and aubergine. Franck is the chef, says Paul Quinton, and he assists. Yes, they get on quite well, and have earned a toque from Gault-Millau for their efforts.

Tripe is a house speciality. It would be hard to eat from the carte for under pounds 20, and there are no wines under pounds 10. As so often in France, I missed 'proper' vegetables (whatever happened to them?), but that is a mere quibble.

Breakfast, at Fr50, meant bread, brioche, croissants, a glass of tart local apple juice, fromage frais, home-made orange jam, and a tiny dish of prunes.

There are opportunities to fish, play golf, ride horses nearby. And, says Paul Quinton, who was born in the region and knows and loves it thoroughly, there is a wealth of wildlife. Including, apparently, red squirrels. Now that would be something to find]

Le Manoir du Lys, La Croix Gauthier, 61140 Bagnoles-de-l'Orne (010 33 33 37 80 69). Rooms from Fr300 to Fr750. Mushroom weekends from late September to the end of October, Friday night to Sunday afternoon, Fr2,800 for two; Saturday lunchtime to Sunday afternoon, Fr1,900 for two.


Getting there: Stena Sealink (0233 647047) operates four sailings a day from Newhaven to Dieppe (crossing time four hours): a three-day return for a car and up to five passengers costs pounds 68.

Hotels: The pick of the hotels is Hotel de l'Univers, 10 Boulevard de Verdun, 76200 Dieppe (010 33 35 84 12 55): double room with sea view, from pounds 46 per night half-board for two people. The Ibis at le Val Druel (010 33 35 82 65 30) has rooms from just pounds 34 a night.

Restaurants: Top-rated eating place is La Melie (2 grande rue Pollet, 010 33 35 84 21 19): fixed-price meals start at around pounds 19 per person.

Market: The main market is on Saturday in the grande rue.

Hypermarket: Mammouth at the Val Druel Centre Commercial on the N27 road towards Rouen, a few minutes' drive from the centre.

An hour to spare: The 15th-century castle museum contains the Dieppe Ivories and a collection of Georges Braque prints.

Tourist office: Syndicat d'Initiative de Dieppe, boulevard General de Gaulle BP 152, 76204 Dieppe (010 33 35 84 11 77).

(Photographs and map omitted)