Mushroom Picking in the Czech Republic
Hunting for houby
Mushroom hunting could be considered national sport in the Czech republic. It's one of our favorite hobbies. Whole families wake up at dawn, grab their baskets and roam the forest looking for these wild delicacies. It can be great fun but can be fairly dangerous if you don't know which mushrooms to pick. Here are my tips to help you join in and hunt for some houby.
Where to go:
Head to the forest. Although it is possible to find the odd mushroom in a park you'll have more luck off the beaten path. Czechs are granted free access to every forest in the country, so you don't have to be worried about a game keeper chasing you off. (The only exceptions are military areas and some national parks.) In Prague, Divoká Šárka is a good bet.
What to bring with:
A basket - to collect your treasures. A bucket could work as well but a nice wicker basket is the classic choice to keep the mushrooms dry and in tip top shape.
A knife - to cut and clean your mushrooms. (And to scare off the competition.)
A friend - for company. A Czech friend usually can double as a mushroom expert.
A field guide - if you don't have a Czech friend.
What to wear:
To go all the way you would wear a camouflage suit and khaki wellies, the attire of choice for the hardcore mushroom picker, but a pair of old jeans and sneakers (waterproof) will do.
Which mushrooms to pick:
Here comes the most important (and dangerous) part: selecting the right mushrooms. Basically all edible mushrooms are brown, grey-brown or tan - the default forest colours. The colorful ones are typically poisonous so stay away from those. However, even if you think you found an edible mushroom, it just might be its evil poisonous twin. So here is a very safe list of mushrooms to pick for beginners:
Boletus edulis (Photo: Tomas Čekanavičius)
The favourite mushrooms for Czech mushroom hunters come from the Boletus genus. The penny bun (Hřib smrkový) is one of the most popular and prized as an ingredient in various foods. Slightly sticky to touch, the cap is round in shape when young and flattens with age. The colour is generally reddish-brown fading to white in areas near the edge, and continues to darken as it matures. It is often confused with the very bitter Boletus felleus (hřib žlučník). It is suitable for drying.
Bay bolete (Photo: Jean-Pol Grandmont)
The Bay Bolete (hřib hnědý) is often considered a poor relation of the penny bun - but it's really tasty and can be added to various dishes. It is especially good for drying. The cap is chestnut in colour, the pores are cream, but stain blue when bruised or cut and the flesh is white and stains pale blue. That's why lots of czech mushroom pickers call it "modrák" (modrá = blue).
Bitter Beech Bolete
Not all of boletes are suitable for eating though. For example the bitter beech bolete (Hřib kříšť) is not poisonous, but is inedible, because it's, not suprisingly, bitter. The toxic Devil's bolete (Hřib satan) is one to watch out for. When young, the cap is greyish white, when older it tends more to a greenish ochre or leather colour, the stem is red and it slowly turns a faded blue colour when broken or bruised. Do not eat.
Saffron milk cap (Photo: Eric Steinert)
Tasty Saffron milk cap (Ryzec borový) - or Red pine mushroom - has an orange cap and exudes an orange-red latex or "milk" when fresh. It is widely used even in Spanish and Polish cuisine.
Chanterelle (Photo: Strobilomyces)
Chanterelle (Liška obecná) - yellow in colour and great in taste brings life to every dish. It goes well with other mushrooms or meat and fish.
The Parasol mushroom (Bedla vysoká) - one of the favourite mushrooms mainly because its height - fairly tall, it's a mushroom you just can't overlook. When young, the cap is round, but later looks more like an umbrella. Only the cap is used for cooking. It's great for soups, with meat and you can even fry them schnitzel style (coated in flour, eggs and bread crumbs).
The Fly amanita (Photo: Onderwijsgek)
The Blusher (Photo: Archenzo)
The Blusher (Muchomůrka růžovka or masák) - is another example of how similar can an edible mushroom look to a toxic one. Although from toxic Amanita family, the blusher is edible and in fact considered a delicacy. It has a reddish-brown cap with small cream-coloured warts. The flesh of the mushroom is white, becoming pink when bruised or exposed to air. It is unfortunately easily confused with the poisonous False Blusher (Amanita pantherina) that has a brownish cap and collar-like roll of volval tissue at the top of the basal bulb. Only pick the mushroom if you have someone skilled to confirm that it's really a Blusher. But novice mushroomers should avoid it.
Important fact: Intentionally damaging mushrooms, even the toxic ones, is considered impolite.
How to pick:
It might sound easy, but there is a method behind the right way to pick an actual mushroom! It's a secret practice that is handed down from parents to children on the fourth day after the third full moon... Ok, well not really. To put simply: Don't pick it like you would a flower. You have to dig your finger in the ground just next to the stem and sort of push it out, otherwise you might break the poor thing and then your Czech friend might yell at you for hours (if he's anything like my uncle).
What comes after picking:
After you you have filled your basket and head to the house. Now comes the boring part: cutting and cleaning them.
Take you knife, and cut off the bottom dirty part. Then cut the whole mushroom in half lengthwise so you can see if the inside part is healthy. If worms foudn their way in you will see little dark dots. If there are only a few you just cut out that part, but if there are dots all over the mushroom, just throw the whole thing out.
You can even find an odd slug under the cap; just dump him (or leave for added protein?) as the mushroom itself is fine. If the mushroom looks alright, take a bowl with a bit of water and leave it there for all the dirt and little leaves to soak off. Then you can either leave the mushrooms cut in half or cut them into smaller pieces. Then put the halves or pieces in a clean bowl (or a pot) and stick them to the fridge. You may want to put some sort of lid on it (but no plastic wrap as they stay more fresh that way).
If you want to enjoy your mushrooms in the winter, try drying them. Store them in a cool and dry place.
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