Mushroom Picking in Prague

Czechs have a passion for wild fungi but sorting the tasty from the toxic requires some local knowledge

This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.

It was 9am on my first Sunday in the Czech Republic.

Rather than sleeping in like a normal college student, my friend Alex and I set off to Prague's popular Divoká Šárka park. I awkwardly juggled my wicker basket as I punched my tram ticket and slumped down in the first available seat.

I had reluctantly agreed to join Alex for mushroom picking. He has had a love of mycology since the time he grew mushrooms in his own backyard.

When he brought up this Czech pastime when we arrived in Prague, our friends laughed at the idea. Most were still getting over jetlag and trying to locate the nearest McDonald's to get a taste of home.

Venturing into Prague's wilderness to search for potentially poisonous fungi was not a top priority.

As the tram barreled further into Prague's outskirts, I closed my eyes and tried to fight that New York skepticism from seeping through.

Mushrooms are purchased at the supermarket or the local corner bodega. Performing physical labor in search of them was never an option.

This sentiment was shaken, however, when five men in oversized hats, hiking boots and windbreakers clambered on board at the next tram stop. But it wasn't their eclectic fashion sense or the loud, incomprehensible Czech that caught my eye, but rather the large wicker baskets they were holding.

"Wicker baskets are what are mostly used," Alex whispered as the men took their seats. "They're kept fresher that way."

As I scanned the approaching countryside I saw clusters of similarly dressed people roaming the rocky hills, most with a wicker basket in hand.

I started to think that this might be the perfect time to learn how to work for a good meal.

After all, there is no better place than Prague to get my hands dirty with some traditional Czech mushroom-picking. The natural abundance of fungi in the Czech Republic makes it a popular pastime that has existed for more than three hundred years. In 2006, over 57 pounds of mushrooms were picked in forests across the country.

The season starts in May or June, and lasts until late October.

Picking after a heavy rain is ideal, so it's common for whole families to venture out into Prague's forests to pick bucketfuls of mushrooms after a downpour.

Czech families often have their own type of identification systems.

The unique ability to identify, collect, and prepare edible mushrooms is passed down through generations. To some it is a sport, where families compete to find the tastiest, most edible mushrooms.

When Alex and I got off the tram, I knew we had competition -- nearly everyone who disembarked at the Divoká Šárka stop was toting empty wicker baskets.

Beyond the circular tram stop I gazed at the mix of open fields, high rocks, and forest that made up the nature reserve and popular picking site.

Alex and I didn't know the ideal picking locations in Šárka, so we decided to wander on one of the many paths.

When I later spoke to Hanka Mueller, a Charles University student and avid mushroom picker, she said that she always goes to the same spots.

"My mother would take me and my brother when we were kids," said Mueller. "She showed us the places where she went with her family and I go there now."

As Alex and I struggled up a particularly slick path, I pointed out clusters of mushrooms peaking out of the muddy grass.

Although mushroom identification books are sold all over Prague, figuring out which mushrooms are edible -- and which could result in an excruciating death -- is difficult for the inexperienced picker.

A learned picker like Mueller identifies mushrooms by their texture, colors, and terrain.

"It's impossible to know which to pick unless you're with someone who knows what they are doing," said Mueller. "It's dangerous to eat if you're not sure, especially raw."

Czech collectors don't tend to overanalyze the mushroom identification process. Some consider Westerners paranoid because of their refusal to eat freshly picked mushrooms unless properly identified. However, Mueller warned us to stay away from brown mushrooms.

"They are the most common variety, and because you can only tell if the brown ones are poisonous from the textures underneath their caps, don't risk it," she said.

The hill Alex and I climbed our first Sunday in Prague was littered with mushrooms fitting this description. After spending a few hours cutting various brown mushrooms, we rightfully deemed our unidentified stash inedible.

Despite that, this experience served another purpose.

It expanded my understanding of an alternative pastime I couldn't have fathomed a month ago.

As Alex and I perched on the grassy hill after a gratifying day of picking and hiking, I was proud to be the owner of the mushroom-filled wicker basket placed prominently beside me.

Jarra Gruen is in her third year at New York University, studying English. She is from New York, New York.

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