Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Mushrooming

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing and archery.

For most people I know in the West (except Finland), mushrooms mean cultivated champignons. You can do all kinds of nice things with them, but they are not even near the culinary sensation of wild mushrooms, and mushrooming was something everyone in Russia did – perhaps still does, both for pleasure and for food. Wherever you went for holiday, there would be mushrooms aplenty, you just needed to know where to look. And of course you also needed to know which were edible.

The king of mushrooms is the bolete, particularly oak bolete or penny bun bolete. They are superb in any form: fried, sauteed, pickled (when they are very, very small), and you can dry them for the winter. Then you can make mushroom soup, which isn't the boring cream-of-mushroom, but the Russian-style soup, with onion, carrot and potato. Mushroom pies are a delicacy. The best gift you could bring to someone who preferred beaches was a string of dried boletes. 


Bay bolete, red and brown birch bolete (or birch roughstalk) and slippery jacks are good fried, but not so good to dry. Small birch bolete caps are excellent to be pickled in marinade.

Chanterelles are best fried or sauteed. Milkcaps are best pickled in salt.

In a good mushroom season, nobody would even look at burners and brittlegills, but when other mushrooms are scarce, sauteed brittlegills are good too. Sometimes, inkcaps were the only mushrooms available. They are delicious. Scaleheads come late in autumn so we seldom found them during summer vacations. 

Most of us were obsessed by mushrooms. Finding a family of boletes was like finding gold. And did we compete! Twenty! Forty! Fifty-three! We all had our secret places, and with luck you could let your mushrooms grow a couple of days, without anyone discovering them. But more often, the urge to pick them was too strong. Our hands were shaking as we went down on our knees to pick a perfect one. 

As with fish, it was often my job to clean and cook mushrooms or prepare them for drying. It had to be done quickly before they turned bad. In good season, my father would bring a basketful before breakfast, and it would take me all morning to take care of them, by which time there was a new basketful waiting for me. When I said I couldn't do any more, my father would get furious and throw the whole basket into the garbage pit. The cottage smelled drying mushrooms. We had more mushroom sautee than we could eat, but everybody had just as much so there was no point in iniviting guests. We would send dried mushrooms by post back to Moscow.

I stopped mushrooming for a very simple reason, and you can read about it here. Warning: it isn't a joyful read.

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