That's the dream of every devoted Russian mushroom-picker.Natalya Nosova
“Almost nowhere else in the world do they gather mushrooms; fearing to mistake poisonous ones for those that are edible. Only in Russia does this ‘mushroom sport’ thrive,” wrote contemporary writer Dmitry Bykov. “Even Russian monuments look like they’re searching for mushrooms! Take Yuri Dolgoruky [the medieval prince who’s believed to be a founder of Moscow]: “Here’s one!” he shouts joyfully, pointing at an imaginary brown cap boletus,” Bykov jokes.
Yuri Dolgoruky's monument in Moscow.Konstantin Kokoshkin/Global Look Press
Perhaps he went a bit too far – mushroom-picking is not a unique Russian thing. “Slavic peoples in Bulgaria, Slovenia
Babushkas selling mushrooms in the Novgorod Region.Konstantin Chalabov/Sputnik
At the same time, in Western Europe and the
Russians enjoy the opportunity to cook different kinds of mushrooms in a wide variety of ways and have every opportunity to do so. Akhil Sharma, an American writer who went to Russia in 2013 (to look for mushrooms, of course) quoted the executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Moscow, who grew up in a mushroom-rich region in France: “In
Fly agaric, one of the most poisonous kinds of mushrooms in Russia. Do not eat it!Vladimir Smirnov/TASS
Be careful, though. Picking mushrooms without preparation is as dangerous as hunting bears. Okay, maybe not as dangerous. But seriously, you can end up dead in both cases. There are about 30 kinds of poisonous mushrooms in Russia, and they can damage your health. The most dangerous is the death cap – even just a piece of this fungus is enough to kill an adult.
Many Russians, despite their love for mushroom-picking, are surprisingly bad at distinguishing edible fungi from poisonous, Mikhail Vishnevsky admits. “Unfortunately, our people love to pick mushrooms en masse, but they don’t have any special culture in this field whatsoever: putting everything in their mouths.”
So when you go ‘hunting’ mushrooms, take a guide with you – a gribnik, a mushroomer with much experience who can easily tell delicious from dangerous ones.
Akhil Sharma was disappointed with the way Russians cooked the mushrooms he picked in the Moscow Region: “The chef overcooked them horribly.” Boiling, frying or pickling mushrooms is a Russian thing, and not everyone from the West can understand this.
“If you have mushrooms of this [high] quality, you should serve them raw in a salad or maybe roast them slightly. To do any more is a waste,” chef Andrea Accordi said to
Nevertheless, the way we cook our mushrooms is rooted in history – in times of hunger and crises picking mushrooms was one way to get food for free – and it wasn’t always as delicious as chanterelles and porcini.
“If you treat some of our bitter mushrooms as Europeans do – blanching a bit and sprinkling with oil – and eat it, you will get blisters on your tongue from bitterness,” Mikhail Vishnevsky explains.
Going out into the woods and spending hours there, searching for mushrooms - almost every Russian person loves it.
“The mushroom is like a magnet, an invisible and mysterious connection appears between it and the one who ‘hunts’ it… it’s not even a hunt, it’s a hide-and-seek with no winners or losers, no victims,” Russian writer Alexander Genis wrote, adding that for so many Russians this type of leisure is the most effective meditation.
This article is part of the "Why Russia…?" series in which RBTH answers popular questions about Russia.
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