(This post is co-linked to WanderFood Wednesday. Go read other foodie posts!)
I go hiking for a lot of reasons. What I don’t expect is to find treasure.
Gold? Pirates? No, something better, something edible, something that I know almost nothing about: mushrooms.
Last week I wrote about picking delicious, treasured huckleberries in Montana. Huckleberries I know. I can identify them, eat them, and even know how to bake with them. Sometimes. But mushrooms? I have a cute little mushroom guide in pamphlet form in front of me (highly recommend these for flower lovers, birders, and casual mushroomers, by the way — the Pocket Naturalist series by Waterford Press) and there are way too many skull-and-crossbone symbols in it to make me feel at all secure picking and eating mushrooms in the wild.
I do, however, absolutely adore them. It might be the half-Russian in me, or it could be my affinity with hobbits, or perhaps simply childhood memories of my father gathering and frying wild mushrooms while camping, but I could live, happily, on mushrooms pretty much forever. That’s what Russian peasants have been doing for a good long time. Mushrooms, I have read, have higher levels of protein than does beef, so stop pitying those poor peasants who have to gather ‘shrooms and have no meat. Mushrooms are what allowed my grandmother to get her two children through the Siege of Leningrad alive.
So while I don’t feel confident enough to gather my own mushrooms, I do feel confident eating those gathered by my father and his wife. In fact, considering what they found while we were out in the woods last month, I feel privileged, almost royal in the delicacies we were fed.
My father’s wife does not like hiking, but she forgave us all for dragging her out when she saw, growing wild and plentiful in the Montana woods, a mushroom known as Pine Mushroom in English. “I can’t help myself,” she said, pulling out a plastic bag I’d been saving for my son’s inevitable diaper. “My hands will pick them by themselves.” She twisted the stem of an unimpressive looking fungus.
I found out later this single mushroom, known as Matsutake in Asia, is highly prized in Japan, China, and Korea, is difficult to cultivate, and can sell for $100 per mushroom. That’s not a typo. My father, husband, son, niece, and I ate a princely meal that night, thanks to my stepmother’s quick eyes and early mushroomy education. She learned from her grandmother.
My father learned from his mother. Even after surviving the Siege of Leningrad, living on potatoes and wild food, mushrooms were always a part of my family’s life in Russia. Right now, at the end of August, my aunts, uncle, and cousin are on their annual vacation in Russia’s far north, hiking for hours to harvest mushrooms that they’ll dry and preserve in various ways to last the winter. I’ve tried their pickled, preserved, and reduced mushrooms, and have always been hard-pressed not to eat their entire year’s supply.
My father’s skills allowed him to contribute a yellowish-brown mushroom from further up the trail. It smelled beautiful, but I didn’t recognize it at all. How could I? The fat, chubby King Bolete he picked looks absolutely nothing like the dried porcini I pay a fortune for at the grocery store.
My husband had serious reservations about eating these findings. I trusted my father, having eaten his gatherings while growing up, but my husband hadn’t, and had heard plenty of stories of people from Eastern Europe dying after mistaking something poisonous for an edible variety found in their home countries. My stepmother showed us how the King Bolete would change to a bluish tint when cut if it were poisonous, and my father demonstrated the differences in spore patterns, texture, and gills they use to weed toxic varieties from edible ones.
He finally joined the feast after finding out that they’d taste-tested both mushrooms hours before feeding them to us. He didn’t regret it.
Montana is only one place in the vast world of mushroom gathering. France, Italy, and various countries in Asia have a thriving economy based on mushroom sales, and a long historical culture of mushroom experts and wild mushroom gathering. Even where I live in New York’s Hudson Valley there are mushroom hunting clubs.
After this last trip, I’m thinking of joining up. Mushrooms are one of the most divine wild foods in the world, and it seems a pity to miss out because I’m terrified of suffering a wretched death at the hands of a Dung-loving Psilocybe or Death Cap.
Lessons passed down through generations in Russia, and introduced to me while traveling in Montana, might be the catalyst for someday feeding my own kids, with confidence, $100 mushrooms picked wild while traversing some other country’s mountains.