It was a matter of great importance that I learn to forage for my own protein and so, almost as soon as I could walk, I was initiated into the cult of the mushroom. Far too early one summer morning, my parents scooped me out of bed and we set forth from our dacha, about an hour and a half southwest of Moscow, making our way toward the forest down dusty packed-earth roads, our buckets and baskets swinging.
Still foggy with sleep, I trundled along with the pack of parents and grandparents and cousins, struggling on the two-wheeler I had just learned to ride. It was a 20-kilometer trip to the forest and, at 3 years old, I was approximately the height of the bike’s back tire.
Every August, just when summer rains cut the heat, the forests of Russia blossom with all manner of fungi and the country’s city-dwellers board trains bound for the countryside. Armed with sticks and knives, they invade the forests, necks craned, eyes peeled, poking under leaves and fallen trees. Find a mushroom, slice it at the stem, and send it, with a soft thunk, into your leaf-lined basket.
Mushroom picking is an ancient peasant tradition, but in the Soviet Union, where fresh vegetables were scarce and meat products were enhanced with newspaper or fishbone filler, hunting for mushrooms, those fragrant nuggets of vitamins and protein, became a fiercely competitive sport. Keeping your mushrooming location a secret from rival groups was key, as was going as far as possible from any cluster of human habitation: the closer the forest was, the more thoroughly it would have been picked clean by the hungry crowd preceding you. Remarkably, respect for mushrooms in Russia is such that it transcends Russian disrespect for the environment. In a country where oil was left to pool on the ground and the Aral Sea was reduced to a salt plain, mushrooms were lovingly sliced down, not ripped out of the earth, to ensure future crops. And what began as the hunt for delicious freebies in a culture of privation soon morphed into a national pastoral myth.
Ask any Russian about mushrooming, and you’ll hear their salivary glands activate, their voices gather breath as they expound on the beauty of the forest and the quiet thrill of the hunt in something akin to beat poetry. It has even survived into the era of the petrodollar and the ubiquitous luxury supermarket. Every year, scores of people check into Russian hospitals with mushroom poisoning; dozens die. In 2003, a bumper crop killed 34 Russians and poisoned nearly 500 more. That year, 121 people got lost in the forests near St. Petersburg in one month alone.
The danger is real, and so most Russians also moonlight as mycologists, lay experts in the fungal sciences. There is a lot to learn, which is probably why my parents drafted me so early in life. (The bike, which I had to haul through the woods over felled aspens, seemed at the time somewhat gratuitous.) One must know, for example, that chanterelles, or lisichki (those amber-colored, frilly-gilled “little foxes”), cluster in mosses; that in the tall grasses of sunny birch groves, you could find the clay-colored podosinovik or the puffy ecru cap of the podberyozovik, but that rotting birch is prime real estate for colonies of pale opyata (honey fungus) stacked atop one other like favela dwellings, though you should wait for autumn to gather them in earnest; that under drifts of leaves, you’ll find the pickling workhorse of the Russian fungi, the milk-cap or gruzd, but that the mixed forest near our dacha was mostly littered with syroyezhki (the bare-toothed russula), the jalopy of the bunch, and that these can be easily confused with the poisonous, pale-gray poganki (break it open and, if it turns pink, it’s edible – I think).
At that stage in life, however, I knew only that the toadstool, the beautifully named mukhomor or fly-killer, was horribly poisonous and potentially downright evil, even though its red cap with white polka dots looked so pretty in my picture books. Perhaps I even knew that the round buttons of the hilarious but inedible dymoviki blew up in smoke when stepped on, but I was delighted to learn, a couple years later on a trip to the Baltic coast, that, in clearings, you’re likely to find ryzhiki (the stout-stemmed ocher Lactarius deterrminus, its viscous cap punched in at the center) growing “in families,” as my grandmother used to say; that, in those same clearings and also growing in clusters, you’ll find slimy little maslyata (known here as “slippery jacks”), but that you couldn’t possibly confuse them with a ribbed ryzhik. (A maslyonok has a brown bowler hat, yellow stem and porous, corral-like underbelly. Besides, when cut in half, a ryzhik lactates rust-colored ooze that turns green in the air – a dead giveaway to any mushroomer worth his salt.)
One should probably also know that, though these mushrooms are around all summer, the best haul comes in during an Indian summer, when the heat has abated and when rain followed by a couple of sunny days coaxes forth a bloom of mushrooms. Even better is a “mushroom rain,” whose bizarre simultaneity – sunshine and rain at once – heralds full baskets.
In the silence of the forest, lost as you may be in fresh air and introspection, you are always, always on the hunt for the White Whale of the Woods: the elusive beliy grib. This meaty, luxurious white mushroom, known to the Whole Foods-spoiled urbanite as the simple porcini, was to a Soviet the delicacy of delicacies. It grows among young spruce trees or in a mixed birch-and-spruce forest, but mostly in theory; in practice, it seemed nearly impossible to find. Its brown cap makes it blend with the forest floor and, just to keep things interesting, if you manage to find one, you may have actually found a booby-trapped body double. (Simple test: lick the cap; if it’s bitter, it’s poisonous.) Chances are, you’ll find a few white mushrooms, but they are so prized, so fervently worshipped that you’ll be sure to place them at the very top of your already overflowing basket alongside your most beautiful fungal specimens just to provoke the envious, drooling rival hunters on the train platform waiting to head back into the city.
Back at the dacha, after the interminable bike ride back, we dumped our loot into a bathtub full of water, which promptly filled with the confetti-like dirt clinging to the mushrooms. White mushrooms, recognized by worms as well as humans as incredibly tasty, had to be soaked in salt water to smoke those suckers out of our food. After a few washings, the chopping, boiling, salting, pickling and sautéing would begin, the smell of earthy mushrooms, the sounds – of knives and jars and pots and pans, of my parents and grandmother and great aunt and uncle scurrying between the cellar, the kitchen and the veranda, wiping their hands on old aprons – filled the house that night, though I was probably already asleep.
My Great-Grandmother’s White-Mushroom Soup
• 1 medium onion, diced
• 2 carrots, diced
• 3 celery stalks, diced
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 cup Great Northern beans, soaked overnight, sorted (can be substituted with a can of rinsed cannellini beans)
• 3 medium potatoes, cubed
• 4-5 medium fresh porcini mushrooms, chopped
• _ cup chopped shitake mushrooms
• _ cup chopped baby bella mushrooms
• Salt, pepper
• Sour cream (for garnish)
In a large soup pot, sweat the onion, carrots and celery. Season with pepper. Fill 2/3 of the pot with water; add beans and bay leaves; bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add potatoes, mushrooms, salt. Make sure the beans are almost cooked, and simmer for 10-15 more minutes, skimming foam off the top. Adjust seasoning. Serve with a dollop of sour cream.
Grandma Khinya’s Pickled Mushrooms
• 1-2 lbs. assorted mushrooms, cleaned (if using slippery jacks, remove slippery membrane on cap)
• 5-8 peppercorns
• 2 cloves
• 2-3 bay leaves
• 1-2 tsp salt
• 2-3 tbsp white vinegar
• 1.5 cups water
In a large soup pot, add just enough cold water and 1 tablespoon of salt, so that the mushrooms barely covered. Boil for 15-20 minutes, until mushrooms are cooked through. Fish out the mushrooms, save mushroom stock for soup. Transfer cooked mushrooms to a clean jar. In a small saucepan, mix peppercorns, carnations, bay leaves, salt, vinegar and water. Bring to a boil. Pour over mushrooms. Let it sit, uncovered, for a couple hours until it comes to room temperature. Adjust salt. Screw the jar closed, keep in fridge for 2-3 days before serving.
Mama Olga’s Sautéed Chanterelles with Potatoes and Sour Cream
• 1 medium onion, diced
• 2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 pound chanterelles, cleaned, sliced
• 7-8 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled, cubed
• 1 cup sour cream
• 2 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
• Salt, pepper
Sauté onions in butter until soft. Add chanterelles, salt and pepper; turn heat up to medium-high. When the mushrooms start releasing juice, turn heat down to medium, stirring occasionally until liquid evaporates. Add sour cream; cook until heated through but not boiling. Adjust seasoning. Meanwhile, boil potatoes in salted water. Cook for 5-7 minutes. Potatoes should be soft when poked with a knife. Drain, return to pot to dry. Add mushroom mixture to the potatoes, dill. Mix and serve immediately.