Stumbling upon a big, beautiful, perfectly shaped and healthy bolete whilst trundling through the woods with a basket and a knife is very high up on the pretty short list of things that have me screaming with joy. Apologies for the crude joke but it is true! Especially on bad years, when walking through the woods you’d give anything just to find a crappy old blusher and then, just as you are entertaining this very thought you stop nanoseconds from treading on a colossal specimen. This has not been a bad year so far, but cannot even begin to compare with the madness of early September 2006, or last summer. But first things first.
Thick, foggy, hilly woods around our holiday home have always been a fruitful, albeit challenging terrain for our mushroom pickling adventures. Mushroom picking is somewhat of a national sport. As the English converse about weather, the French play boules and Italians ride their scooters, the Czech have a strange penchant for long walks in the woods with dubious outcomes. Come August and September wild horses would not drag us away from those deep forests. Personally I think this tradition originates partly in the deep seated connection to the countryside people (even city dwellers) still feel, partly because we have not been a nation of means for a very long time and the memory of times when people had to queue up around the block to buy oranges at Christmas is always at the back of our minds. People learned all kinds of little shortcuts and how to get our hands on free luxuries, and that is not a skills easily forgotten. But most importantly Europeans will eat anything, as we all know.
Why do I like picking mushrooms so much? To me, it’s not just about what you bring home at the end of the day. I enjoy the fact that I can get lost in the woods (but never lose track of where I am) with only my thoughts to keep me company. It’s the perfect opportunity to focus completely on things that have been bothering me, or important decisions to be made with no one distracting me. Or simply get absorbed in my imagination like I used to ever since I was a child, devising scenarios and little stories.
The only downside to foraging are ticks. I must have come back from the woods with thousands of ticks in my 24 years. So far I have been lucky and none of them carried any infection. Unlike my poor grandma who caught Lyme disease which attacks the nervous system and ended up with Parkinson’s-like tremor in her right hand, among other things. Fortunately ticks like warmer climes and, apparently, dislike the British Isles very much. Here’s to worry-free foraging!
At the risk of sounding like a big pile of cliche, I feel that being a mushroom picker has made me more aware of the food I put in my mouth. Even though I cannot lay a claim to a vast mycological knowledge, here is something that I found in the woods, identified as edible, took it home and cooked it the way my grandmother has always done. This may sound smug but I do know a great deal more about mushroom than the average person does – and it makes me never want to eat those bland tasting, uniform supermarket field mushrooms ever again. Furthermore, this knowledge was not acquired in school, from books or, thank heavens, in a weekend course for people with too much money for their own good. It was passed on to me by my family, I grew up learning to recognize edible kinds of mushrooms under the strict supervision of my grandparents, forming a deep bond with my family and the nature. Yes, I will shut up now.
I may make myself sound all kinds of clever – this is far from the truth. It is very easy to start picking mushrooms. I know my mushrooms, yet I am only comfortable taking home around six or seven different species. Boletes are hard to find but hard to go wrong with – other than the extremely rare and aptly named devil’s bolete they can do no harm. The worst you can do is misidentify a bitter bolete and end up spoiling your food. In very crude terms, most things with spore tubes will be fine. The dotted stem is a beautiful mushroom in garish red colours that turns black when you touch it or bruise it – and will turn everything you cook with it black! As will all the different kinds of the leccinum genus that we also pick. Oh and let’s not forget the peppery tasting sullius, whose cap is covered in slime.
Mushrooms with gills are trickier. Blushers are also delicious and very easy to identify, even though there is very little margin for error and a mistake may well cost you your liver, or your life. So far this year has been great for chanterelles and less great for saffron milk caps, which, in my humble opinion, pickled in vinegar are superior to all other mushrooms.
And what do we do with the spoils of our foraging? Eat them, of course. You need to be okay with that fact that you will have shared them with forest wildlife, be it maggots, slugs or mice and squirrels. A large number of your mushrooms will always be too maggoty to eat and gets thrown away. Not too maggoty ones are sliced thinly and dried on our excellent contraption insect proofing window nets. And the healthy ones, well, you can do anything with them. Creamy mushroom sauce is a traditional Czech sauce that goes with boiled meat. We often make a mushroom and pasta bake (heavy on the mushrooms), no white sauce, just mushrooms, pasta and eggs. Mushroom go into a traditional thick Czech potato soup. However, I usually crave a scrambled medley so much I can hardly bring myself to cook anything else. It may not look apetising, even borders on ‘something our cat has vomited’, but trust me it is heavenly manna. You need around 500g mushrooms of all kinds, 1 onion, 3-4 eggs depending on taste and proper European cumin (none of that sweet Asian stuff). Fry the onions gently, add the mushrooms and a teaspoon of cumin and cook them until softened (15 minutes?). At the end crack a few eggs and scramble. Eat with slices of rye bread, preferable having just returned from a foraging walk in the woods.
As a proper geek I have amassed a vast collection of mushroom photographs. My apologies for the lack of food styling, these photos were taken in moments of breathless excitement – and in our rather shabby looking holiday home complete with a 10-year-old oilcloth on the table. I have tried to only include those I picked last weekend around our holiday home, but this would not do. I have to share with you photos from 2006, when we brought back so many mushroom no one wanted to clean them. Few people will get as psyched by them as I do, I understand, but I remain hopeful I might eventually convert someone.
Please don’t think I knew the latin names. I did not even know most of the English names. My knowledge was acquired without any scientific approach to it, and in a similar way I use a strange taxonomy of vernacular, and even names given to mushrooms in my family. Thank you Google and Wikipedia for restoring order!
Here’s a challenge for you, take a look at the Wikipedia links and see if you can identify the mushrooms in my photos yourself!
And the mental year 2006
And finally… Please do not pick these.
… although I’m told licking them is quite fun.