Magical Mushrooms

1998 > Russia

Time to go ‘schroom picking in the forests of Russia!

Boston Globe ,6 September 1998

Mushroom season has Russians in fungi frenzy
Success measured by basketful in good-natured rivalry

By David Filipov

ODRINOVO, Russia – With the practiced eye of a hunter stalking his quarry,
Mikhail Volkov spied the two men hurrying across the boggy field toward a
damp thicket, their knives bared, their eyes scanning from side to side.

“Locals. They’re hunting,” Volkov whispered. “Let’s follow.”

Moving stealthily, Volkov slipped behind the pair and tailed them at a safe
distance until they unwittingly led him to the place he was looking for.
The spot was covered with low spruce trees and mossy ground, prime territory
for Russia’s favorite summer pastime – mushroom picking.

Then came the tricky part. Anyone at home in the woods can find mushrooms,
especially when someone else leads you to them. But knowing which mushrooms
to pick can be a matter of life and death. Russians, who flock to the countryside
on weekends as summer wanes, are supremely confident of their ability to
distinguish between tasty delicacies and lethal toadstools.

But this confidence is often tragically misplaced. Russia’s weekend fungus
warriors suffer an alarmingly high number of casualties. Since mid-July,
nine people have died and 180 have been poisoned from bad mushrooms, according
to Lydia Terezhkova of Russia’s Federal Health Inspection Service. And this
is a good year. Last year, 34 died of mushroom poisoning across Russia in
July and August.

The culprit, Terezhkova said, is usually the “death cap,” amanita phalloides,
known to Russians as the “belaya poganka,” or pale toadstool. Inexperienced
mushroom pickers often mistake the death cap for one of its edible cousins.

To the neophyte, the mushroom hunt means a nice stroll through the woods,
basket in hand, to collect spongy, tasty fungi. But to high-intensity Russian
mushroom hunters like Volkov, this activity is far more than a pleasant hobby
or a cheap way to put something tasty on the table. Mushroom hunting is silent
war – a quiet, good-natured, yet fierce competition to see who can collect
more mushrooms and best hide what he or she finds.

When the ruble spun out of control in Moscow and other Russian cities last
month, Russians such as Anna Rasputina, a telemarketer whose company is nearing
bankruptcy because of the economic crisis, continued to head for the woods.
“There’s always an abundance of mushrooms,” she said. “And they always
cost the same: free.”

Like their reckless winter brethren, the legions of ice fishermen who sit
on lakes and rivers long after the ice has become undependable, Russian mushroom
hunters seem impervious to the deadly perils of their hobby. “I don’t believe
you can be poisoned by a mushroom,” Volkov maintained as he thrashed through
a thicket of stinging nettles on a steamy summer’s day in the woods near
Odrinovo, a farming hamlet 30 miles north of Moscow. Vicious mosquitoes,
apparently immune to American-made repellent, attacked in waves.

“People who suffer poisoning usually do something wrong, like picking mushrooms
at the side of the road, where they are contaminated, or preparing them
incorrectly,” Volkov said just before he broke off his speech with a
warrior-like cry.

Bending over, he proudly displayed his find: A pair of large “beliye griby,”
or white mushrooms – boletus edulis in the encyclopedia, the “Czar of the
Forest” in Russia’s rich fungal folklore. Russians consider this the tastiest
cooking mushroom and also best for freezing, drying, pickling, or marinating
for the long winter months. “To find whites so quickly – this is mushroom
bliss,” Volkov said with a sigh. “A mushroom miracle!” Volkov assiduously
avoids the white mushroom’s evil twin, known as the “satanic mushroom,”
which is not deadly but causes a nasty stomachache.

Why are mushrooms so popular in Russia? One reason is their availability.
Mushrooms will grow wherever it’s cool and damp – the typical summer weather
forecast for Russia. Even in such forbidding places as the arctic mining
city of Vorkuta, where nothing much grows except lichen, people gather mushrooms
in the tundra in July.

When times are hard, mushrooms brighten up an otherwise drab diet. Volkov
and his wife serve up mushroom-filled pastries, fried mushrooms with potatoes,
mushroom julienne, mushrooms pickled in brine, and dried mushrooms.

President Boris N. Yeltsin even bagged a few white mushrooms during his July
vacation in Karelia in northern Russia. In Moscow, anyone with a car can
easily drive to choice mushroom hunting grounds in the dense forests that
surround the city.

Over the years, Volkov has picked up some tips from the dean of Russian mushroom
hunters, writer Vladimir Soloukhin, whose 1967 work “Third Hunt” includes
a series of lectures on the subject. It is not altogether surprising that
another Soloukhin work deals extensively with ice fishing.

Whenever a so-called mushroom rain – a light summer sun-shower – falls, Volkov
heads for the forest to search for whites, “little foxes,” and “milk caps.”
The same goes for the mushroom moon – the first full moon in August. To be
certain of the best times, Volkov consults an astrological calendar.

This summer, the mushroom rains have been frequent, and mushroom bliss abounds
in the forest. Mushroom good will is another matter. Russian mushroom hunters
take note of their fellow foragers, but only to find the best spots. When
two mushroom hunters meet in the woods, they quickly cover their baskets
so that a competitor cannot glean success and retrace the other’s steps to
bountiful areas. Volkov calls this intelligence gathering.

“Find anything?” Volkov inquired of an elderly man who happened by as Volkov
was leaving his newly discovered white mushroom site. The stranger discreetly
zipped his brown leather bag and smiled politely.

“Nope,” he said, eyeing the wicker basket covered by Volkov’s hand. “There
were some little foxes back aways, but they’re all wormy. You?”

“Naw,” Volkov said with a slight grin. “We didn’t find a thing.