When I first arrived in the Czech Republic, one of my students mentioned that she liked picking mushrooms. I thought then how beautiful a hobby that must be: surrounded by woods, tracking down those delicious morsels of food, the rich smells of nature in your nose.
I saw these mushrooms for myself on my many hikes, sometimes fifteen varieties or more sprouting from the forest floor. Clusters of tiny white mushrooms. Big frilly black ones that seemed to melt away into a shiny mush that filled my senses. Yellow-orange creations that looked like coral.
Classic fairytale toadstools, red with white spots. Plate-sized caps you can apparently bread and fry like schnitzel, if you know what you’re doing. Gilly ones, spongy ones, puffballs that looked like they’d disintegrate into chalk dust the moment you touched them.
I never went hiking with friends who knew their mushrooms, and I never dared pick them on my own. My second year passed the same. Mushroom season turned into winter, then spring, summer. Suddenly it was my last day in my beloved town, and I still hadn’t gone mushroom hunting. August ninth it was, and my landlord came by to do a little business.
Over the course of that year I’d become friends with the whole delightful family: Vlád’a, super intelligent yet child-like in his enthusiasm for everything, who scaled back on his pharmaceutical work in order to raise sheep in the Wallachian hills; Pavla, who organized a Spanish conversation club and tried to teach me how to cook a goose on the old-fashioned wood-burning stove in the traditional house they’d built; three kids who loved getting to school in the winter by snowmobile.
Mushroom Picking and Guitar Playing
I was even closer to Pavla’s parents, who lived in the same apartment block as I did, who spoke no English and often invited me over for fancy snacks and Czech movies, or long patient conversations more beautiful for the language barriers we clambered over. I loved them all. And as Vlád’a sat there talking in his animated way about the mushrooms that had suddenly sprung up, I mentioned that I’d never been mushroom hunting, and it was a shame. Without thought, he invited me over for a night of mushroom picking and guitar playing.
I immediately postponed all my plans. Nothing would be a more fitting end to my second year in Wallachia, this beautiful region of the Czech Republic.
We arrived just in time for dinner: mushroom soup and mushroom sauce over knedliky (Czech “dumplings,” for lack of a better word). Yes, mushroom season had arrived.
By the time we finished eating, it was nearly dark, but indefatigable Vlád’a decided we could go find a few mushrooms anyway. We took the tractor along a jouncing dirt road to a favorite mushroom spot. It was too dark by then to really see, but he had eyes like an owl, and spotted one after another: huge things, some bigger than my fist, seven or eight total, their mass more than any little carton of mushrooms I’d ever bought at the store. What a haul, I thought. When I proudly showed off our basket to Pavla, she laughed. “Is that all?”
I didn’t understand until the next day.
Our party set out on foot that morning, huge mushroom-picking baskets over our arms. Pavla’s visiting nephew and his girlfriend came too.
Petr, the nephew, got a real kick out of how I called it “mushroom hunting.” “Hunting?” he’d repeat to himself, chuckling at the image of hunting rifles and stealthy mushrooms.
After a long stroll through sunny ridge top meadows and shady woods, we began to spot the mushrooms. To be more accurate, the kids started spotting mushrooms. To my untrained eyes they wore forest camouflage. Vládíček, the youngest kid, would cry out in delight and scamper toward something invisible.
Then he’d reach down and only when he had his hand on the mushroom would I see it, a brown that blended in with the fallen leaves and forest soil. After a while, however, I began to see through the camouflage. One and then another and then another I saw.
At first I had to ask about each one, to make sure it was safe. It’s crazy how two similar-looking specimens will be totally different: one tasty and pickable, one poisonous. Some mushrooms can kill you. Then, of course, energetic Vlád’a —who probably wouldn’t let the deadliest of mushrooms stop him—kept saying things like, “One way to tell if it’s safe is to taste a bit.” No thanks.
The kids were so excited: “I see one, I see one,” they’d cry, running back and forth. When I first began to see them, they were excited for me too. Little Vládíček carried them scooped up in his T-shirt front, like a modern version of a farm girl’s apron.
At one point we were hunting together and I’d pick one and clean it with my knife, then give it to him to carry. He’d pick one and give it to me to clean. Soon the whole forest was carpeted in mushroom peelings, like wood shavings. We shared little common language between us, but we didn’t need it. We were speaking mushroom.
Mostly we picked what they called pravák mushrooms: darkish brown caps, spongy white to yellow undersides, and fat whitish stems. Named porcino by the Italians, these mushrooms are quite common and popular throughout Europe.
The Czech name may come from the Slavic root meaning “truth.” These, then, are the true mushrooms.
They had me taste another, not poisonous, but which burned like black pepper.
It could be good in cooking, I thought, but they didn’t collect it. Maybe because there were too many tasty praváks to bother collecting inferior varieties.
We also found a few modrák mushrooms: battered-looking and yellow, with flesh that turned blue like magic the moment we cut into them.
Pavla, after a while, gave up picking, and just sat with the bounty her kids brought her, trimming and sorting and building up entire mountains of mushrooms around her. I kept thinking we should stop. We had more than we could eat—more than we could carry.
But they freeze them, dry them, stew them, eat them. They never have too many. The seven of
us hauled most of the mushrooms nearly two kilometers home in three awkwardly huge baskets and two big “babies,” as the kids called them—overstuffed bundles of mushrooms wrapped in various jackets. The rest we left with Vlád’a to bring home in the tractor.
I took two bags away with me when I left—only a small fraction of the haul—and ended up sharing a bunch with friends. I cooked myself mushrooms over toast, a mushroom omelet, mushroom sauce over pasta, and a huge pot of mushroom soup I shared with hostel mates, who at first were afraid to try it. “From the forest?” they asked. “So big!” “Are you sure they’re safe?” Finally, someone tried it—just a bite—and came sheepishly back for more. Soon I was feeding the whole hostel. All thanks to my generous Czech friends and the bounty of a Czech hillside.
All over the country during late summer and early fall, you can see lone cars parked on sides of wooded roads. Look hard enough and you’ll see people quietly combing the forest for mushrooms. A beautiful sort of hunting. Older couples and young families alike lug huge baskets onto trains, and beam when you compliment them on their find. I met a woman once in a bus shelter, all of us trapped there by a sudden downpour, and when I asked about one of the huge mushrooms she’d collected, she pulled out her glossy mushroom book and showed me all sorts of things I didn’t understand.
But her enthusiasm I understood. I love a country where people in their crowded city apartments still have room in their homes and hearts to own—and use—mushroom picking baskets.
*Image of forest mushrooms via Shutterstock