Fungus fever: How I learned to love mushrooms like a true Russian

October 15, 2016 Peggy Lohse, special to RBTH
The "silent hunt" is in the blood of almost every Russian. Penny buns, orange caps and chanterelles can be easily found not only in children's books, but also in the Russian media, which actively cover the mushroom season. Peggy Lohse, a regular RBTH author from Germany who lives in Moscow, writes about how she discovered the Russians’ passion for mushrooms – and then caught it herself.
mushrooms
"After several hours in the woods, three friends and I return to the city with full buckets. Orange caps, penny buns, slippery jacks and birch boletes – the result is more than just decent, and it means that we will have mushroom soup for dinner." Source: Vostock-Photo

The mushroom season is in full swing. After several hours in the woods, three friends and I return to the city with full buckets. Orange caps, penny buns, slippery jacks and birch boletes – the result is more than just decent, and it means that we will have mushroom soup for dinner.

We get on a crowded bus, with no seats left, so we travel standing up, holding buckets between our legs. "Oh, what do you have here – a penny bun?" the lady next to me wonders. "Have they already appeared?"

Orange caps, penny buns, slippery jacks and birch boletes – the result is more than just decent, and it means that we will have mushroom soup for dinner. Source: Peggy LohseOrange caps, penny buns, slippery jacks and birch boletes – the result is more than just decent, and it means that we will have mushroom soup for dinner. Source: Peggy Lohse

She looks into my bucket as adults usually look at an infant in a carriage. Instead, she strokes the mushroom cap. "A hard one! You still have a lot of work to do with them," she says with a laugh and gets off at her stop, freeing her seat for us.

If a person returns from the forest with a bucket of mushrooms, their life immediately gets easier. Need a ride home? Here you are – in five minutes, for free, and almost to the door. Need to go to the shop? The seller will look after the catch. But you might want to cover your penny buns with something from prying eyes, or else who knows what might happen.

A murder and a bath for pickling mushrooms

Last year, people were stirred by the news that a man had killed a woman in the Arkhangelsk Region in northern Russia just because she was picking mushrooms in his favorite spot.

This summer, the public was struck by a new story: In August, a 50-something pair of Russian tourists had decided to pickle mushrooms right in the bathtub of their room in a luxury Swiss hotel after going for a walk in the woods nearby and stumbling upon mushrooms.

The Russian couple discovered so many mushrooms that they did not have time to eat them, so they decided to stock up for future use. But how? Since there were no vessels suitable for pickling to hand, they used the bathtub in their luxury room, Later, after returning to Russia, the couple promised to come to the hotel again – perhaps for the next mushroom season.

If a person returns from the forest with a bucket of mushrooms, their life immediately gets easier. Need a ride home? Here you are! Source: Peggy LohseIf a person returns from the forest with a bucket of mushrooms, their life immediately gets easier. Need a ride home? Here you are! Source: Peggy Lohse

My mushroom science

Observing my friends' annual "mushroom fever," I’ve learned a lot as a foreigner about mushrooms from a scientific point of view. For example, I know many names only in Russian.

Since the beginning of the summer, I was explained the theory in detail: which fungi can be picked, and from which ones it is necessary to steer clear, where to look and how to clean them. And all this for me to keep them company in the forest in the fall.

All kinds of things can happen when collecting mushrooms! A friend of mine, a man who has no real interest in sports, can spend five or six hours searching all over, hoping to find at least one more patch of slippery jacks.

The role of mushrooms in family life

My friend's father – a harsh and not very talkative person in everyday life, a former plant director – just melts at the mere sight of a strong penny bun. When talking about mushrooms, he immediately starts using diminutive words like gribok or gribochek (a little mushroom), and he gently caresses, kisses and fondles the specimens he has collected. In fact, there is even a joke in Russia that sometimes mushrooms hear more tender words than the wives of some mushroom pickers.

During the mushroom season, many Russian families have a clear division of duties, a kind of work in shifts. Source: Peggy LohseDuring the mushroom season, many Russian families have a clear division of duties, a kind of work in shifts. Source: Peggy Lohse

During the mushroom season, many Russian families have a clear division of duties, a kind of work in shifts. While dad and the kids go to the forest early in the morning, the mom can stay home and get a good sleep. When they return from the "silent hunt," all eat together, have a rest and start cleaning the mushrooms.

The evening, which fades into the night, is the mom’s shift. With little helpers or alone, she cooks, fries, salts or pickles the mushrooms. In such a manner, Russian families can spend their weekends for weeks, as long as what nature gives can be collected – not only mushrooms, but also berries, apples, and so on.

In the blood from childhood

Where does this mushroom fever in Russia come from? Does it all start from childhood? There's a lot related to mushrooms in the “ABC” books used by Russian children.

And while German children are unlikely to recognize any mushrooms, except for a fly agaric or a penny bun, saffron milk caps, ceps or slippery jacks are so understandable words for Russian schoolchildren, that with their help they are taught to read.

In one ABC book from 1987, the letter "M" was illustrated by a poem about mushrooms. The plot is simple: the mother shows a real mushroom – a penny bun – to her child after he has picked some toadstools in the forest. But in modern primers, you can find not only different names for mushrooms, but also the mushroom soup beloved by so many Russian children.

Here's a little advice from an expat to expats: In any unclear situation – with colleagues, strangers, fellow travelers on the train or plane, or even with your boss – talk about mushrooms. You won’t even notice when mutual understanding magically emerges between you and them.

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