Yesterday was the last time we went picking wild forest mushrooms this year - and there were still quite a few around! Today I got up and looked out the window - and what did I see but snow! So we're leaving behind the season for wild mushrooms and moving deeper into dark winter. Luckily I've built up a decent supply to last the year!
Back in Britain where I come from we don't have this tradition. Certainly we don't have so many forests as in Poland. The first time I went picking wild forest mushrooms (or indeed ever saw one) was in Poland a few years ago - and I still look in wonder at their fairy tale like appearance - like from some children's story book.
So what equipment and skill does one need for this pastime? Well, to begin with - a basket or plastic bucket to put them in, small knife to trim the stipes (stalks) - and at least 2 or 3 hours to get away from the rat race! You can't stuff them into your plastic bag from Tesco - that way they'll get squashed and ruined. It has to be some hard container - but a nice old-fashioned wicker basket is the best.
Once you get to the forest how do you recognise them - and especially distinguish them from the countless other fungi and toadstools that can be seen everywhere? Well, they're a lot harder to find than the other fungi you'll encounter at every step. Over millions of years these poor culinary delights have developed a defensive mechanism to protect them from the dreaded human, knife-wielding, wild forest mushroom picker - camouflage!
While walking through the forest you'll see many fungi, but the ones you really want blend perfectly into the dark brown colour of the forest soil. Their upper side is a darkish brown, and when you go picking later in autumn towards November they're almost indistinguishable from the countless fallen leaves rotting on the forest floor.
The secret to spotting wild forest mushrooms is this: walk SLOWLY. If in your excitement of the hunt you tramp quickly through the undergrowth your eyes aren't going to see through their camouflage. So slow down the pace - and you'll begin to spot them in no time!
The real test to identify and confirm that what you've found is the real thing - and not some deadly poisonous fungi that'll wreck your digestive and nervous system is to look at the mushroom's underside: does it have gills or pores? If the underside has a pore-like surface then you're safe; if on the other hand it looks more like something you saw at the salad bar in Pizza Hut - then forget it!
The ultimate prize though is finding what Poles popularly call a "prawdziwek", which kind of translates as "an authentic/true/real one". Now I'm certainly no botanist and have no idea what this translates to in David Bellamy's book (the Boletus genus?), but this fairy tale monster can sometimes grow to several kilograms in size. This year I found 7 during one hunt and the biggest weighed about half a kilo. The main thing that puts this fellow into a different class though is the size of its stipe or stalk, sometimes as thick as a Robinsons jam jar!
We all know mushrooms contain hardly any nutrients, so why do people go picking them in the first place? Answer: the taste! Once you've returned home with a full basket there are basically three things you can do with them - cook them, dry them or marinate them. If you want to cook them straight off - first clean, then cut them into bits and finally boil them to make a delicious sauce with sour cream and onion - good with a few slices of bread for supper, or even with mashed potatoes for dinner. You can also beat a few eggs into the sauce for a scrambled egg version.
Remember, once the icy frosts begin and real winter sets in, it's goodbye to wild forest mushrooms until next autumn. Actually, throughout the summer of 2001 it rained so much that I actually found a basketful in June(damned mosquitoes half bit me to death though!). So you'll want to store quite a few to use in recipes throughout the year.
Well, you could make some fresh sauces and freeze them, but it's more common to dry them over an old-fashioned stove - get a needle and string to thread through them and hang them up over the stove. After a few days over the heat they'll dehydrate, harden and shrivel up into a tiny fraction of their original size, but will retain the full rich flavour. Then you can seal them in jars to use in the most important of Polish meals - Wigilia, just a few months later on Christmas Eve. The dark rich sauce that is made from dried "true ones" is the perfect accompaniment to festive pierogi and carp. Later in the year you can add them to pierogi stuffed with sauerkraut, or bigos.
And the marinated version? - Yes, the perfect accompaniment to be washed down with a fine bottle of ice-cold vodka!

Bruce Wenham

4 November 2002


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