Mushroom hunting

A quintessential Czech tradition

The air is crisp, the sun is mild and the time is ripe for gathering mushrooms in the Czech Republic. If you haven't been on a mushroom hunt in a Czech forest yet, don’t despair. According to mycologists, this year’s season is just getting started. Although mushroom season traditionally runs from April to November, this year's hot, dry summer has yielded mushroom bounties below the norm. However, in the past week rain showers, cooler evening temperatures and dewy mornings have helped create favorable conditions for the growing fungi.

Although I witness this tradition anew each autumn, I’m still surprised by how ingrained the act of going to the forest for mushrooms is within the Czech population. From young children to grandparents with walking sticks, Czechs mushroom hunt to relax, and, of course, to have a store of fresh-picked mushrooms to flavor their cuisine.

Over the past twenty years, the average Czech household has collected 6 kg of mushrooms each season. During 2014, the numbers dipped to slightly under 6 kg. Still, the average Czech made 19 trips to the forest. In 2014, Czechs collected 38 thousand tons of forest fruit with mushrooms outpacing blueberry collection by over 4 kg/household. That's a lot of time spent in the woods. (Statistics from survey conducted by agency STEM/MARK and Czech Agricultural University)

If you'd like to experience the autumn past time that's not exactly, but almost, a national sport, now is your chance. Dust off your wicker basket (or purchase a one at a local farmer's market), sharpen your rybička (a traditional Czech pocket knife in the shape of a fish), put on some pants with pockets and a pair of sturdy walking shoes. Invite a Czech friend to go along, preferably one who knows mushrooms. Since seven of ten Czech households report that they go mushroom hunting, it shouldn't be hard to find a friend to give you tips.

About an hour northeast of Prague, the air is cooler and moister, and mushroom pickers, like my husband's grandfather, have already ventured to the woods. Growing up in the Jizerské Mountains, my husband remembers that his best autumn days were spent traipsing through the woods with his grandfather. After a day of training his eyes on the forest ground, looking for the brown, gray and sometimes orange edible fungi, he swears that he used to lie down to sleep at night, close his eyes and still see mushrooms.

For his 80th birthday, děda (Czech for grandfather) got an elaborate cake from his grandchildren in the shape of a wicker mushroom basket, complete with edible marzipan and fondant mushrooms. Now děda's 84. Last week he called to tell us that he'd been to the woods, and the mushrooms were ready – when were we coming to help him gather them?

There are few European countries where mushrooming is as big a part of the culture as it is in the Czech Republic. School children are taught to identify poisonous and edible mushrooms, and families put the school learning into practice on regular trips to the forest. With no practical training, I have learned what I know from Radek and my children.

In the forest, we walk slowly and scan the forest floor. Each person heads off in his own direction, but we stay in sight of one another. Some mushrooms grow near specific trees, like the kozák (a brown-capped mushroom with a thick, white stem) which grows at the base of the birch. Others grow in taller grasses, on the undersides of rocks or at the base of tree stumps. The children have had good luck looking near blueberry patches, and they get blueberries to taste as a bonus.

Czechs say every mushroom has a “brother” – meaning where there is one mushroom there is likely another growing nearby. My children know how to remove mushrooms from the ground by digging their fingernail underneath its stem so that the stem comes out intact. They clean my mushrooms with their pocketknives before we add them to the basket.

There are edible mushrooms like hřib pravý (Boletus), liška obecná (Cantharellus cibarius) and bedla vysoká (Macrolepiota procera), which many Czechs can identify. Even I can identify a hřib nicknamed modrák, a yellowish-brown mushroom whose underside turns blue upon being touched. Since many edible mushrooms look similar to their poisonous counterparts, standard advice for novices is to pick only mushrooms with undersides that have pores, rather than slitted gills. While some of these pored-varieties aren't as tasty as others, none should be deadly. At least, that's what Czechs have told me.

The famous František Smotlacha is the most well-known mycologist in the Czech Republic. Under the auspices of the Czech Mycological Society, which he co-founded in 1921, there is an advice center in Prague where you can take mushrooms to be identified for a small fee. At the least, it is common practice to take unusual mushrooms to a local expert (often babička or děda) to get clarification before tasting them. The website gives up to date information in Czech about mushrooms.

Many Czechs who gather mushrooms, my husband’s grandfather included, don’t eat them. My friend Marta has led our family on more than one mushroom hunt. After one such hunt sitting at a table covered with mushrooms, knife in hand and a bottle of red wine at her side, Marta confessed that she doesn't eat mushrooms at all. She gathers them, cleans and cuts them and prepares them; she even makes mushroom soup, but she doesn't taste it.

From soups and sauces to breaded and fried dishes, mushrooms play a significant role in Czech cuisine. There is a dish called houbový kuba made from forest mushrooms, barley and seasonings that is traditionally served for lunch on December 24. Not one of our children is a mushroom lover; still, they all like to eat mushroom řizky (breaded and deep-fried mushroom pieces). They like the tops of the immature modráky mushrooms the best and dislike the texture of the older, larger mushrooms’ spongier parts. Although I don't cook much traditional Czech cuisine, I like to use forest mushrooms in homemade pasta sauces and soups.

With babi léto (Indian summer) in the forecast, I expect the woods will be crowded this weekend with Czechs trying to make the most what started out to be a poor-yield season. Even if you don't like mushrooms, it's a good excuse for a pleasant walk in the forest. Keep your eyes open, and you may be surprised by what you find.

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