I don’t think I will ever grow tired of the long autumn walks in the forest. Every September, the old forest surrounding the villages in Gmina Drwinia fills with wild mushrooms, which urges many to partake in the mushroom picking frenzy that begins then. Boletus species are amongst the most valued here, and foraging amateurs of all ages are keen to fill their baskets with them. I wonder, what is it about mushroom picking that attracts people so much? Where does the Polish love for wild mushrooms stem from? For answers, I turned to my grandma, who loves the forest more than anyone I know.
Babcia grew up in a small village in Lesser Poland, with her Mum and Dad. The times were tough; the war just ended and food was not as easily obtainable, as it is now. Growing vegetables and fruit, as well as foraging, played an important role in the countryside, providing food for the family and farm animals alike. During our recent visit to the forest, I asked Babcia about mushroom picking. She told me, how she and her Mum often depended on wild mushrooms to feed themselves. ‘When I was small, my Mum would send me to the forest to bring some mushrooms home for dinner. She used to make a sauce with fresh cream out of them, and we used to eat it with mashed potatoes, quite a few times a week during the mushroom season.’
Mushroom picking is sometimes called a national hobby in Poland. Mushrooms are the most popular of all foraged foods here, and they are also amazingly versatile. Eating wild mushrooms is a deeply-rooted tradition here, so important that a whole page was dedicated to it in the most famous Polish epic, ‘Pan Tadeusz‘ by Adam Mickiewicz.
Of mushrooms there were plenty: the lads gathered
the fair-cheeked fox-mushrooms, so famous in the
Lithuanian songs as the emblem of maidenhood, for the
worms do not eat them, and, marvellous to say, no
insect alights on them; the young ladies hunted for the
slender pine-lover, which the song calls the colonel of the
mushrooms, All were eager for the orange-agaric;
this, though of more modest stature and less famous in
song, is still the most delicious, whether fresh or salted,
whether in autumn or winter.
Excerpt from Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, 1834, translated by George Rapall Noyes
Mushroom picking is also a living remnant of the times when a year was a cycle, punctuated with growing, harvesting, foraging and preserving food – which remained unchanged in some parts of the Polish countryside to this day. Spring is spent on sowing and weeding, summer on harvesting and preserving fruit and vegetables, and autumn on getting ready for the cold winter months ahead. By the end of October, the larder is full of jars of jams, pickles and compotes, that will ensure variety on a dinner table when nature is dormant and devoid of vegetation. In the winter, all the summer memories preserved in jars can finally come alive and bring the fresh flavours into the stagnant, freezing winter. The aromatic raspberry preserve brightens winter teas, strawberry or cherry jams liven up breakfasts, pickled peppers, mushrooms, cucumbers or beetroots accompany dinners, and dried mushrooms fill the house with a deep, forest aroma every time they are used for a soup, sauce or pierogi filling.
While studying food anthropology, I came across Melissa L. Caldwell, a brilliant anthropologist and researcher specialising in post-socialist Europe. In her paper, ‘Feeding the Body and Nourishing the Soul’ she examines the intricate relationship that Russian people have with natural foods. In her analysis of the notion of natural foods in post-socialist Russia, she explores the meaning of food foraging, preserving and exchanging for local communities in Russia, as well as the society as a whole. According to Caldwell, it was the countryside that often fed the cities in times of food shortages, and it also served as a model for the impromptu food systems that emerged in urban areas. ‘(…) Many people survived periods of economic crisis by sharing both fresh foods and preserved foods (i.e. jams, pickled tomatoes and cucumbers, dried mushrooms, etc.) with their friends and family members. On the other hand, exchanges of natural foods also illuminate a larger set of discourses about the importance of social relations in daily life more generally. Specifically, foods that are grown, prepared, and circulated through personal networks are powerful symbols of intimacy and trust”. Reading about exchanging jars of pickles or baskets of garden-fresh tomatoes had me thinking about my own experiences with natural foods in Poland, also a post-socialist state. Polish love for wild mushrooms bears a striking resemblance to the Russian love for wild blueberries that Caldwell describes.
In Poland, the tradition of picking wild mushrooms is still alive, largely due to the knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation. It was my Nan’s Mum, Aniela, who taught her how to pick and prepare wild mushrooms. She then passed that knowledge on to her daughters and me, her oldest grandchild. From early childhood, I was thoroughly educated by my grandma, Mum and aunties about what grows when and where, what is edible and what to avoid, and how to preserve the bounty brought home from the forest.
But mushroom picking in Poland is more than just a form of pastime. Wild mushrooms exist in the local social life in ways, that go far beyond foraging for food. In close-knit communities, like the one I grew up within, the mushroom gossip is discussed before the Sunday Mass, in the local grocery store or at the family parties. The recipes for pickled mushrooms are exchanged, the passing of knowledge is assured, and the awe for the seasoned pickers is expressed. This awe, that is not without a hint of jealousy, is there to spike the interest of pickers-to-be, by claiming that they are not likely to ever catch up with them in terms of their intimate relationship with the forest, the perseverance and expertise in forest topography, animals and plants. No wonder, then, that one of my own most vivid food memories from childhood is the excited anticipation for the mushroom season to start: the sweet waiting for someone to find the first mushrooms, thereby announcing the beginning of the mushroom season, or the ambition of becoming one. And the competition is fierce.
Everyone wants to participate in the forest bounty, and the thrill of doing so is unbeatable. The mushroom season in Poland can seem like a temporary frenzy, and the forest can get pretty crowded with whole families looking for the wayward fungi. Some enjoy mushroom picking for what it has to offer apart from the mushrooms themselves: the forest lends a space to unwind and rest while being out in nature. And it’s not a revelation that the forest has therapeutic properties, indeed. In Japan, there is even a term for it: shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing if you like. For some, however, the competition factor in mushroom picking seems to play an important part, too. My aunt Barbara, a keen mushroom picker, says that whenever she sees someone’s mushroom success on Facebook, she feels inclined to go to the forest immediately. For those competitive pickers, mushroom picking is more of a race than a relaxing forest walk: they want to be the firsts.
Indisputably, not everyone in Poland enjoys picking, or even eating mushrooms. It appears, however, that even those who are not too keen, are often pulled into the mushroom frenzy when the season is at full swing. It can happen in many ways: from the exposure to wild mushrooms at vegetable markets in towns (and, as they look a bit out of place amongst known and long-domesticated carrots, cabbages or onions, they provoke questions), through eating wild mushroom pierogi at one of the local harvest festivals, to being asked to help with the mushroom harvest that was collected by a friend or family member. In my family, for example, it’s my Mum who frequents the forest and brings wild mushrooms home, and my Dad who is often delegated to the task of cleaning and cutting them before cooking. My auntie Edyta usually teams up with aunt Barbara for mushroom picking trips, but leaves all the mushroom harvest with Babcia ‘to double-check’, she says. My uncle Wiesław enjoys finding mushrooms in the forest but doesn’t particularly enjoy eating them. Not everyone goes all out.
When I lived abroad, Christmas was the time of the year when I missed home the most. The closer it was to December, the more I craved dishes that are eaten in Poland only once a year: on Christmas Eve. The aromatic borscht with cute wild-mushroom-filled uszka. The steamy cabbage stew with tiny, white beans and wild mushrooms. My Mum’s famous kapuśniaczki, small savoury pastries with cabbage and mushroom filling. Wherever I was for Christmas, I always tried to recreate these flavours in my kitchen, hoping it will make me feel more at home.
Polish Christmas Eve’s menu, however, traditionally features twelve dishes – it’s a festive dinner built around wild mushrooms. Dried wild mushrooms can be found abroad, of course, but they are incredibly expensive when needed in quantities required to cook up the Polish Christmas Eve’s feats (imagine at least 100g of dried mushrooms per dish). Knowing that Polish Christmas is virtually impossible without them, my family decided to help. They figured, that dried mushrooms are very light, and hence can be sent to faraway places cheaply. Every Christmas then, I was supplied with a sizeable bag of dried wild mushrooms – my family’s way of ensuring that I, too, can have ‘prawdziwe Święta‘ (‘true Christmas’) in the strange country that was my home at the time.
The methods of the mushroom supply varied from year to year, depending on where in the world I was. Sometimes the mushrooms were delivered via post, stuffed in an envelope as if they were an ordinary letter. Sometimes they were passed through friends, visiting their families in the country I was also in. And sometimes they arrived with members of my own family, sent by Babcia or Mum to keep me company on Christmas Eve. And let me tell you this: no Christmas gift has ever made me happier than the humbly-looking, divinely-smelling dried wild mushrooms that I received from my Mum and Babcia every Christmas.
The journey of dried mushrooms never ended there, though. Every year, I received more mushrooms than I could use. What to do? Thinking about the effort that went into getting them delivered to me before Christmas: picking them in the forest, drying them in the sun, lovingly threaded on a string, and figuring out the cheapest way to share them with me, I couldn’t let them go to waste. I decided to share the bounty with my Polish friends, then, who didn’t have the connections to get hand-picked, hand-dried wild mushrooms from Poland. The joy that accompanied sharing them reached far beyond one’s kitchen on Christmas Eve. The wrinkly package of dried wild mushrooms is a gift packed with layers of meanings, fully readable to those who know the code. My Polish friends abroad, as it turned out, exceeded in code-reading and, resulting in it, gratitude: their joy was often shared with the mushroom picker directly, via private message on Facebook or a text. Knowing where the food comes from, appreciating nature and human hands that brought it to the existence, and understanding the joy of sharing it with others – that’s the code. And it’s not exclusively Polish, of course.
Some leave the Big, Busy World and move back to their small villages or towns because they yearn for the so-called ‘open spaces’. I, however, always longed for the flavours of nature, that I associate with home: the chives and radishes from my Mum’s garden, wild strawberries that I used to roam the meadows for, and the smell of dried wild mushrooms, stored in jars in the kitchen. If you ever find yourself at the table with a family of mushroom pickers in Poland, allow yourself to trust your host. You are in for a treat, my friend! Reach for your steaming, divine-smelling bowl of wild mushroom pierogi, and don’t panic if you hear the “hope we’re not eating for the last time in our lives” joke. Laugh along and savour every bite of your meal. Your hosts know what they’re doing. Mushroom picking is a national hobby here, after all!
Below, a little guide for everyone who wants to try mushroom picking but doesn’t exactly know what to expect.
MUSHROOM PICKER’S GUIDE
- Choose the time well. For starters, you want to go mushroom picking at the time of the year when there is a chance of mushrooms being there. The mushroom seasons vary from country to country, but you can easily find information online about what grows when. As for a time of the day, it is said that early mornings are best, but many of my mushroom-picking friends don’t agree. The most important is to be in the forest when there is still light. Late afternoons and evening are a big no-no.
- Find someone who knows mushrooms to join you. It’s always best to learn mushroom picking from an experienced picker. Don’t use my photos (or any other mushroom photos you found online) as your guide. Remember that some mushrooms can quite literally kill you, or at least cause unpleasant food poisoning. So if you’re unsure – leave it in the forest.
- Dress for the occasion. Long trousers, long sleeve shirts/jumpers, and wellies or other shoes you don’t mind getting dirty. Long-everything clothing will protect you from the mosquitos and ticks.
- As for ticks: yes, they are to be reckoned with. How to protect from them? Wear long clothing, buy an anti-tick spray, avoid high grasses and bushes, and check every nook and cranny of your body when you get home (especially armpits, belly button and neck). If you did bring one home – remove it. Use tweezers to delicately but decidedly pull it out, making sure the whole insect is out.
- Prepare a basket for the mushrooms and a knife with which you’ll cut the ones you find.
- When in the forest, act respectfully. Don’t leave rubbish behind, don’t be too loud and don’t kick any mushrooms that you don’t want. Some animals might still enjoy them.
- Pick only the mushrooms that you will use. Old ones, half-eaten ones or non-edible ones are best left in peace. As the superstition goes, once you see the mushroom and it’s the kind you’re after – take it, even if it’s tiny. Leaving it to grow bigger or not picking it straight away supposedly makes them disappear.
- When done with mushroom picking, clean the mushrooms immediately. The first processing (cooking, freezing, drying) should be done soon after foraging, to preserve the texture of the mushrooms (they go soft when left too long after picking).
Happy September adventures, everyone!