Tuesday, 10 November 2009


Mushroom picking in a popular past time in many parts of the world (just think Italy with its astronomically priced truffles or the Japanese with their sleek oyster mushrooms), but I feel in Russia 'going for mushrooms' is elevated to a different level. Shroom picking is a mysterious, fairy-tale-like endeavour that is closely linked to the folk traditions of Russia's country-side and the power of its beech and pine woods. Mushroom collection is to this day an encompassing activity that gets excited all ages and classes; a sight of cars pulled up by roads bordering thick forests and of big and serious men carrying heavy baskets full of glorious fungi are far from being trendy in the Russ land (and probably quite the opposite for the urbanised new Russians).

In Britain mushroom picking is gaining the momentum, in tandem with the general foodie movement. More and more of the trendy and middle-class yearn to re-connect with the nature and start baking bread, grow their own veg - and go mushroom picking. Mr J and I finally succumbed to the lure of the shroom last Saturday - after years of me melancholicly reminiscing of my childhood 'po-griby' memories and wet and mossy Estonian forests, we got out the basket that we had optimistically bought in Suzdal, near Moscow, one fine summer morning a few years back....but we needed a guide.

Andy with his years of mushrooming experience and a fun 'Fungi to be with' website was to be the one. He met us and 20 or 30 other shroom-hopefuls in the car park in Hampstead on a sparklingly beautiful November morning. The mixture of us was young (ish), cosmopolitan (ish with me the Russian and a Spanish couple showing our eagerness by bringing big woven baskets) and surprisingly short on kiddies. Andy is clearly bonkers about mushrooms and has spent years learning the tantalising Latin names of various toadstools - how about Laccaria amethystea, or a 'common' Amethyst Deceiver or Coprinus comatos for a wonderfully smelling Shaggy Ink Cup?

Apparently there are some 4000-5000 types of mushrooms in the UK and, according to Andy, about 20 of them are popular edible species and about the same are seriously poisonous; many more are in the in-between state of being tasteless and/or mildly diarrhea inducing. The best way to start learning about species is to memorize 2-3 types that are highly distinctive - I hurriedly jotted down 'red tinted gills - bad', but really rules are impossible since for every 'good' white gill there is a 'bad white gill and, anyway, for an untrained eye so many mushrooms look so similar!

Ceps are the best known and highly prized (a 'white' or belyj grip in Russian) - sturdy and off-white pretty fungi who like beeches and sandy soils; they are not too rare but my childhood memories are full of what felt like unrealistic dreams of finding a big Cep, which in fact matched the moods of the English woods...The Funnel Cap (Andy is showing on the left) is more common - they remind me Russian lisichki, or foxies, although bigger and floppier.

The search started very slowly, with most of us not spotting anything at all, but with time (we spent about three hours in the park darting around) we started seeing shapes and colours all of the place, dragging the toads out, showing them to Andy who, 2 out of 3, would thoughtfully say a convoluted Latin name and eventually a dismissive 'no good'...

The deeper we went into bushes and trees, the more things we started to see...it felt like a Treasure Hunt! First you are in a complete unknown, but as your eye and head get accustomed to the patterns of the surroundings you begin spotting more and more...the more inaccessible, thorny and wet the place is, the more likely we were to uncover shrooms. Fungi obviously like co-habiting with trees - it's a cosy cross-system whereby one helps the other - but you are more likely to spot a little glossy cap a few meters away from a tree - tree's roots can be as long as its height, and since mushrooms are often living off these roots you need to look further afield. And a stick does help.

At the end we managed to gather a good half a basket: a few Wood blewits - gorgeous lilac-y and floppy, a handful of the Deceivers - cute little orange round caps and lots and lots of Buttercaps - unattractive spindly things, the lenght of your palm, with shiny dark brown tops. Oh, the red one above is a lucky find of one of our shroom-comrades - Fly Agaric, in Russian matchingly called Mukhomor, the one that exhausts or starves flies. You get a fantastic image of this half plant, half animal creature seducing flies to approach and stay...

I have intense memories of coming back home with my parents after a day's of mushroom gathering, sitting next to a fireplace, laying the found treasures carefully on a newspaper, sorting them, carefully cleaning them..I remember some mushroom always the types that had to be de-skinned before being fried with lots of onions and sourcream - does
anyone Russian know or remember why these mushroom had to be cleaned?

Mr J and I followed the same cosy tradition - with an addition of a newly purchased mushroom cleaner. An adorable and extremely useful gadget that sweeps dirt off mushrooms (washing them in water is a big no, since they'll become all soggy and waterlogged). From the handful of what was left I cooked up an autumnal treat of shrooms stewed briefly in a little garlic, butter and cream, piled up on clouds of creamy mustardy mash - a truly warm-your-cockles feast.

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