Mushrooming: Level One

Photo taken by the author near Radzymin, Mazowieckie, on August 9, 2016, using an iPhone 4S (with some hasty processing in Lightroom).

Photo taken by the author near Radzymin, Mazowieckie, on August 9, 2016, using an iPhone 4S (with some hasty processing in Lightroom).

Mushroom hunting is not a fringe discipline in Poland. It is a main event, one I never expected to join in on, at least not with any rate of success. Attempts at finding a mushroom deliberately always led to nowhere, and my limited mycological knowledge was pretty much useless, even when a mushroom found me. Because so what if it looks like a king bolete if I don’t know with certainty what other species resemble a king bolete, or which of those might be poisonous?

Years into taming the woods at my summer cabin, I am gaining a sense for what’s worth gathering. More importantly, I’m beginning to spot my prey. Indeed, foraging for mushrooms can be said to resemble the carnivorous chase more than the fruit picking session, with specimens sprouting up in a matter of minutes, it would seem, in unpredictable, mostly well-camouflaged places. It’s mushroom hunting, remember? And mushrooms are not plants at all, but rather chitin-rich separatists occupying the fungi kingdom.

It has been suggested (by Michael Pollan, among others, to recent acclaim) that real, unwavering knowledge of a species resides not in the intellect but in the gut, and it derives not from books but from entrenched experience. Holistic, non-analytical, and empirical, it follows the logic of impervious certainty: you know you can pick that chanterelle because it is a chanterelle, and only then is it also funnel-shaped and deep orange-yellow, with a scent both woody and reminiscent of apricots, and with gill-like ridges running almost all the way down a sturdy tapering stipe.

As for the various types of boletes, I dehydrate them with Poland’s winter specialties in mind, though I might turn a half-dozen of them (or a few tasty parasol mushrooms) into an artery-jamming foil for a batch of biscuits. But the chanterelles, invariably, wind up the star of what Mark Bittman teaches are the ultimate scrambled eggs: an unctuous custard, smooth and rich, stirred over low heat for ages and now stained a light tan from the sautéed kurki. (It’s worth noting that the Polish term happens to be a homonym for little chickens and evokes plainer, friendlier fare than its frou-frou English equivalent.)

Neither tedious nor boring, mushroom hunting is trance-inducing and highly gratifying. The promise of food at the end of the hunt imbues it with titillating purpose, but even better is the way each find is like an addictive video game’s sparkly chime, only real.