On the last bright Saturday morning in September, my family and I drove out toward the town of Vysoke Myto, near Pardubice. Along the way I noticed hints of orange and yellow in the leaves. The crisp morning was accompanied by a thin sheet of frost on the grass. I was glad that I’d layered the children in sweatshirts and vests. It seemed that we’d only just returned from our summer in America, but in fact a month of school had already passed.
Our plan was to spend the weekend mushrooming with Czech friends at their chata (cabin). Spending two days at a chata surrounded by forests and nature seemed like an ideal way to forget the worries of my new teaching job and the children’s adjustment to being back in school. Plus, the mushrooms were supposed to be plentiful.
According to Czech chata culture, weekends are for relaxing, walking in the woods and preparing simple meals, often from mushrooms or other fruit and nuts gathered in the forest. It is not uncommon for Czech cabins to be without running water or heat. Often a cabin will have been passed down within a family through generations, located at the outskirts of larger villages or off of rural lanes in so-called cottage-districts.
On the afternoon we arrived at our friends’ cottage we saw the village lane dotted with bikers and walkers. Most of the walkers carried woven baskets filled with mushrooms. Some younger children with thick mushrooms in hand waved them like flags announcing their national identity.
There are few European countries where mushrooming is such a big part of the culture as it is in the Czech Republic. School-age children learn to identify basic types of edible and non-edible mushrooms in their first nature and science classes. Classroom knowledge is then put into practice on weekends with their families while walking in the forest. They learn to walk slowly and scan the forest floor carefully, sometimes using a long stick to overturn taller grasses. Specific mushrooms grow near specific trees, under taller grasses and where the ground is moist. They learn that where there is one mushroom, there is likely another growing nearby. They also learn how to remove the mushroom from the ground, so that the stem isn’t damaged and to clean it with a pocketknife before adding it to the accumulating mound in the basket.
Once taken from the forest, edible mushrooms are further cleaned and classified into types. There are those mushrooms suitable for mushroom soup, others for breading and frying, and still others for drying, which are later used in meat sauces, like goulash. There are commonly known types of edible mushrooms with nicknames like hřib pravý, babka, liška, modrák, václavka and bedla, which Czechs can readily identify. Then there are others that only a specialist like the famous pan Smotlacha, the most well-known mycologist in the Czech Republic, can identify. It is common practice to gather mushrooms from the forest and then take them to the village expert (often babička and/or děda) to get clarification. Radek gave me the advice that he picks only the mushrooms with undersides that have tubes or spores, rather than gills, as none of these are poisonous. The tradition of mushrooming is treated as a pleasurable pastime in nature and many Czechs who like to gather mushrooms don’t, in fact, like to eat them. The joy in mushrooming is that it is like a scavenger hunt in the woods. And there is always great satisfaction in admiring the “mother lode” back at the cottage.
When we pulled onto our friends’ property, we saw a large fire pit with the remnants of a season’s worth of bonfires. Our friends’ cottage had a fireplace and hot water. They had assured us that we’d be warm enough to spend the night there. As soon as we unloaded our belongings and food, we headed to the forest. My friend’s husband changed into his mushrooming clothes (torn army trousers) and gathered a high-sided woven basket and a pocketknife.
While the adults were preparing for the mushroom hunt, the children scampered off uphill into the forest behind the cottage. Within minutes, our friend’s children raced down the steep hillside to show us their finds – a handful of hřib smrkový (Boletus edulis) mushrooms, also known as hřib pravý. I learned from our friends, most mushrooms are identified by the nicknames, rather than their Latin classifications. Mushrooms also have different nicknames according to the region where they’re found. For example, the podhřibek is also called podmáslík in some parts of the Czech Republic.
Although the children wanted to stay near the cottage and keep looking for mushrooms, on our friend’s advice, we set off in our cars toward a spot recommended by his father. After about twenty minutes of driving we pulled the cars off the road at the start of a thick, wooded area. With the recent rains, the ground was muddy and soft, perfect conditions for mushrooming. Except for us, the woods seemed empty, a contrast to the heavily traversed wooded area near in the cottage district. We fanned out and began our search.
Although I’d been mushrooming once years before, I didn’t have the experience that the other Czechs had (even the children). Still, when I trained my eyes on the ground, I was surprised to find how many mushrooms popped into my line of vision. My youngest son Samuel and I slowly combed our section of the forest, stopping to admire what he called piskoty mushrooms, because their flat, light-brown caps looked like the traditional Czech piškot (biscuit). We also stopped to admire the vibrant red and white colors of a group of poisonous mushrooms, muchomůrka červená, probably the most easily-recognized poisonous mushroom in the Czech forest. With their bright, red-caps popping up in amidst the tall forest grasses, it was like a scene from a fairytale.
After a few minutes of hunting, even three-year old Samuel was able to recognize the common hřib pravý. Soon, we had filled our two woven baskets with all types of edible mushrooms and one beautiful, perhaps edible mushroom with bright, orange juice that our friend wanted to take home to identify online. We had several large, fat mushrooms of the hřib modračka variety (modrák) also known as hřib kovář. When touched this mushroom turns a bluish-green color, and as I soon learned, so do your hands. I was surprised to learn that the largest mushrooms we found had probably been growing in the forest for only a week or two. I didn’t realize how quickly the mushrooms grow under the right conditions, which probably adds to the thrill of going regularly to the woods for a mushroom hunt.
When our baskets grew heavy, we left the forest and headed back to the cottage. That night we spent hours cleaning and preparing our mushrooms. Radek remarked that when he was little, after a day spent with his deda looking for mushrooms, he used to dream about them at night. On Sunday, our friends made creamy mushroom soup and breaded, fried mushrooms that my children said tasted better than chicken schnitzel. We took home a bag-filled with fresh mushrooms and our friends kept the mushrooms we’d dried in their dehydrator overnight.
Although the mushrooms were still plentiful on Sunday during our walk through the woods, we collected only a few and left the rest for later mushroom hunters to find. It had been a perfect escape from the demands of daily life, and one we hoped to soon repeat.
If you get the chance this autumn, take a Czech friend and head into the woods for a mushroom hunt. It’s one Czech tradition, I wouldn’t want to miss.
Look for Half n Half every other Friday.