September 01, 2002

Peculiarities of Russia's National Mushroom Hunt



 

Come late August through early September, millions of Russians rush to the woods in search of their prized forest fungi—the griby. But Russia’s fall fascination with mushrooms is not just about a weekend in the country. It has a practical basis too: it adds seasonal variety to the diet; autumnal feasting on mushrooms is quite a healthy indulgence. What is more, mushrooms are a very affordable meal for those who take the trouble of picking them themselves. For buying mushrooms in Russian markets is a very “expensive pleasure” as Russians say. And the so-called shampiniony, the white mushrooms artificially grown in humid basements or at special mushroom farms, are not the real thing.  s  Russia’s ancient forest culture developed a myriad of uses for this delicacy. Fresh mushrooms have always figured in local soups and garnishes. They are also pickled for the long winter months. And that says nothing about the delicious pies with mushroom filling or the exquisite meal “gribnaya ikra” (“mushroom caviar”), made from finely diced fungi. Salted or marinated mushrooms are also a great snack (zakuska) to go along with a shot of ice cold vodka. (See this issue’s recipe, for an example.)  s  Every Russian housewife knows how to pickle or dry mushrooms. Traditionally collected in a woven basket (lukoshko, to use the ancient Russian word) then cleaned of leaves, twigs and moss, the mushrooms are soaked in salt water to rid them of any possible worms, then sun-dried on the second floor of one’s dacha (or izba). In urban conditions, you can also oven-dry them. The result is the strings of dried mushrooms (sushyonye griby) one sees babushkas selling in underpasses, by metro entrances or near train stations.  s  The secrets of how to find mushrooms and tips on how best to discern the dozen or so time-tested varieties of edible mushrooms from their poisonous cousins, are passed from generation to generation within Russian families. This training begins early, with fairy tales of mushrooms’ magical powers and continues through the peaceful hours that families spend together in “the silent hunt.”

It is best to start your mushroom hunt at sunrise or even earlier, when the air is humid and the mushrooms are juicy and full of flavor. Mushrooms like to nest in humid yet sun-warmed places. An experienced, gray-haired mushroom hunter who is about to step into a sunny glade surrounded by birch trees can already smell mushrooms in the air: they typically hide on moss growing under the birch tree. “Nashyol!” (“I found it!”) his grandson shouts in triumph, rushing to show grandpa his prey – a huge mushroom almost as big as his little head. The shrewd elder smiles, then pats the kid on the back, urging him to remember the sort of place where the mushroom was hiding. Quiet often, for the sake of training, parents and grandparents falsely overlook obvious patches, letting the children savor their first trophies, longed for since they started hearing about mushroom picking in Russian fairy tales.


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