I'm going to tell you a secret about L'Arpege that even Alain Passard doesn't know yet. Tomorrow morning he's going to receive two flats of the most exquisite cepes that he has ever seen.
Sylvain, his head gardener, and I just got back from a walk in the forest. We started out with an empty wire basket lined with brown tissue paper. "For hope," he said. We had worked in the cold rain all day, so we had the right to be hopeful. But in the first clearing, Sylvain pointed out sliced bases and cast-off trimmings - signs of a forager before us. Undeterred, he picked a few himself. "These are a little old, but they'll do." He placed each find cap-side down in our basket. "See how the gills bruise blue when you touch it?" I've read about it but have never actually done it - in fact this was my first mushroom hunt ever. He covered the cut stems by sweeping leaves and grass over them with his boot. "Always cover your tracks," he said, "so people don't know you've been here."
We pressed on to another clearing. Finally Sylvain somehow spotted a tiny, but perfect cepe. "This is extradordinary - it's so fresh - it's from today. The chef calls this un bouchon de Champagne." And it did look just like a Champagne cork, with a bulbous stem larger than its little head. And then he spotted a whole cluster. And then another. And another. Two unbelievable hours and about 10 kilos later, Sylvain filled our basket with cepes so exceptional that he says it happens maybe once a decade.
We just finished sorting the best specimens for the restaurant - exquisitely beautiful and with forest-fresh firm stems. The rest we're eating ourselves - tonight for dinner, tomorrow for lunch - I wonder if I'll be tired of cepes by dinner tomorrow night?
Only one way to find out.