Mushroom Hunting

Finding Fruits of the Forest in the Czech Republic

Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas

Written by Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas Published on 27.08.2010 09:26:13 (updated on 27.08.2010) Reading time: 4 minutes

The first time I picked mushrooms, last autumn to be precise, I made a number of amateurish moves—uninformed, uninitiated, unprepared was I. The most glaring of these mistakes, and I won´t sidestep the truth here, was that I sneakily and knowingly trespassed on private property; the backyard of a government building no less. Oh sure, my Czech is good enough to understand a “Zákaz vstupu” sign when I see one. But the wide-open gate and the sight of those dainty little fungi dancing around the base of a tree trunk trumped good sense, and I skulked inside where I proceeded to make mistakes two, three, and four, all-the-while concocting an eye-lash batting, ignorant-foreigner defense should I find myself busted. Now the mycologically aware (a.k.a. seasoned fungi-finders) will do some stooping, sniffing, and inspecting before picking. If you´ve heard the old saying “All mushrooms are edible…once,” then you know the reasoning behind this approach.

As for me, I came, I saw, I yanked. I tossed my finds into a flimsy receptacle courtesy of Tesco and stalked off to make dinner. Thankfully I´m here to tell the tale, as is my boyfriend who enjoyed my Spaghetti in Stolen-Mushroom Cream Sauce that evening. But this year I´ve seen the error of my ways and after a good-deal of research will forage responsibly and with a discerning eye. I will remember (and you should, too) a few key facts before joining in what is largely considered the national past time here in the Czech Republic, with seven out of 10 of its citizens picking mushrooms between the months of July and November. (Over 25 million kilograms were harvested from the country´s woodlands last year alone!)

If you want to get lucky at the mushroom game, do like the Czechs do and get up with the sun. Mushrooming may sound like a leisurely hobby steeped in Arcadian charm but the Czechs, especially the more serious mushroomers, rise and shine around six-o-clock in an effort to hit the sweet spots first. You´ll spy these industrious types on the Metro ride home, their baskets spilling over with mouthwatering morsels. Sleep in and suffer the repercussions, namely hunger and embarrassment, of empty handedness.

You´ll also set yourself up for suffering if you pick something poisonous. While a remarkable number of edible mushrooms can be found in the Czech Republic—there are an estimated 1500 varieties—baddies often pop up right next to the goodies. And it can be tough to distinguish between them. First-timers will benefit from the skilled eye of the experienced. Many Czechs learn to recognize edible mushrooms, and know how to prepare them, from a very young age. Invite a knowing Czech friend along or, at the very least, pack a field guide. The Czech Mycological Association´s web site (www.myko.cz) is a good portal to the world of wild mushrooms. Though the main page is in Czech, from there you can link to a handful of English sources.

If you´re still uncertain, focus your efforts on nabbing the easiest to recognize mushroom, the hříbky (edible boletus), a yellow-stemmed variety with a brown cap. Porcinis and chanterelles are also common and generally coveted for their gourmet cache. The unmistakable giant puffball, pýchavka (basidiomycetes), which can reach a beach ball-like 30 cm or more in diameter, is allegedly edible, but only if it yields white innards when sliced in half. These things look a bit too Alice-in-Wonderland for my taste, but some make a meal of the puffball by slicing it up and deep-frying it in butter. Avoid vivid green and red mushrooms at all costs —they could be deadly toadstools, or muchomůrky (amanita). Before heading out, we strongly (repeat, strongly) suggest studying up on your mushroom nomenclature here. (www.MushroomExpert.com).

Once you know which sort of mushroom to pick, you should know the proper way to do so. Experts cut the stem with a blade or a pen knife. They suggest that you press a little bit of the stem back into the earth. Kicking over unwanted mushrooms and littering the scene of the crime with stems can harm the forest ecosystem, not to mention give away your very own, super-secret mushrooming spot. Wicker baskets are a must for collecting mushrooms; they help your fragrant yet stinky, alive but decaying crop breathe better.

If, when presented with the question of location, you throw your hands up in frustration, it´s high time to break in your Metro pass. Prague is surrounded with greenery and ringed with quaint villages, all accessible via public transport. Take Metro Line C to ‘Roztyly´ or ‘Chodov´ and you´ll discover the densely thicketed and pleasantly pathed Kunratice Forest. Hop tram 14 to stop ‘Vozovna Kobylisy´ to discover Ďáblice forest. Or try tram 22 to ‘Vypich´ and check out Obora Hvězda—and that´s just scratching the surface! You won´t want for woodsiness in the Czech Republic.

Alas, no matter where you go to gather, the dry, cool summer has enthusiasts lamenting this year´s meager crop of wild mushrooms. Should you hit the mother lode consider yourself blessed and get cooking. Toss a handful of mushrooms into your scrambled eggs (don´t forget butter, salt, and pepper and most importantly cumin) and you´ve got a Czech dish called smaženice; deep fry them for houbové řízky; try karbanátky, a mushroom burger; or fill up on my favorite, mushrooms tossed with noodles, cream, and onions. Pleasant, peasantish fare, the essence of Czech cooking. Culinary—if not hallucinogenic—rapture.

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