Monday, 27 September 2010

more on mushroom hunting

I posted several items on this Czech national obsession last year, but it is hard not to return to this topic because September is the month when mushroom-picking reaches fever pitch. The countryside roads are literally lined with parked cars as townies invade the woodlands, and the country people themselves are getting up earlier and earlier so as to get to the forest before the hordes descend. But the forest areas are vast in this country, so no matter how many people come, they all manage to find a quiet route through the woods and fill their basket. Then at the end of the day they compare their trophies, and retire happily home where they spend literally hours cleaning and sorting and cutting the mushrooms which are then eaten for dinner, pickled, dried or frozen.

I went picking with my brother in law and his family the other day, and he commented that mushrooms are the one thing that completely unites Czechs across all classes, backgrounds, political persuasions or religions: a policeman might meet a football hooligan in the forest and both their eyes, and indeed souls, will light up in unison at the sight of a perfect boletus: a moment when the world is at peace.

But this doesn't mean there is no competition: akin to fishermen, mushroomers love to tell tall tales about the sizes of their catch long after the season is over, and women compare the rows of jars with pickled mushrooms that line their pantry shelves. And in long Winter months when nothing grows, the pickled and dried mushrooms, added to nearly every dish, help the Czechs survive their withdrawal symptoms until the Spring mushrooms start growing again and the hunts can resume.
Recently I read an article in the Guardian that tried to teach the Brits how to pick. And of course I know that the more adventurous Brits in Britain have now been foraging for mushrooms for some years. But as ever the article both encouraged and scared the wits out of anyone reading it, as (it seems to me|) the British mushroom-hunters like the sense of danger associated with dark tales of poisonings. Here in Czecho a very few foolish people also die every year of fungi poisoning but you would never hear anyone tut tut when seeing a person with a basket: after all there are other literarly mortal dangers out there in the woods: ticks, vipers, or even boars if you don't know how to handle meeting them. But does anyone care? Not at all: the hunt is the thing. The beauty of a fresh mushroom sticking its perfect head out of the perfect clump of moss is beyond anything dangerous. And to a Czech, perhaps even beyond any other pleasure: I have not yet met any Czech who would mention the joys of sex or even beer with such an ecstatic, nay beatific expression as when mentioning a mushroom.


McCabeandco said...

Well... you have quite a knack for collecting expertise even. Can you eat them all? I remember travelling through Slovak Republic and spying the roadside Rom selling exhibiting white buckets laden with them... what time of the month do the fungi best grow? Or do they grow from Spring through to late Autumn?

salamander said...

Hello McCabeandco
Well your questions could spark a doctoral thesis :-) but in a nutshell no you can't eat them all - indeed you would be ill advised to try unless you know them well. You can eat all of the ones you see on the photo of my baskets though. The Romas usually sell chanterelles by the roadside, because they are easy to find and pick, as they grow in large numbers. Time of the month? some folks believe that they grow best during the waning of the Moon, others swear it's the waxing - so take your pick :-) But yes mushrooms grow from Spring to late Autumn, not all at the same time though - which makes the hunts more interesting: you go for the Morells first, say, and end up with Honey fungus and a few other species in November. But I have no idea how that compares with Australia where I believe you come from! For example I heard somewhere that people tried to grow birches in Australia and it wasn't working because birches need certain fungi in symbiosis with their root system.... isn't life interesting, eh.

McCabeandco said...

Thank you for your prompt replies to my questioning. And thanks for your explanations. And I believe you when you write that, "...mushrooms are the one thing that completely unites Czechs across all classes, backgrounds, political persuasions or religions." It brings out the hunter in all...But I wonder if the Czechs have similar traditions of unity making when it comes to collecting their berries ... Come May and June (cherries), and July/August (blue berries) what's the bet that berry collecting takes over as the Czech's first choice of activities... ?? (besides drinking pivo) :)

salamander said...

Hello, here is a link to a blog entry on wild strawberries.
Of course the Czechs love collecting anything edible from their woods :-)
not just because it is free food, but because they are passionate about nature and like to touch it and experience it with all their senses.