Mushroom Hunting at A Russian Dacha
Is an article I wrote that appeared in Mushroom; The Journal of Wild Mushrooming, Winter 1995-96. This Includes an article I wrote for The St. Petersburg Press (Russia), October 18th, 1994 entitled “Mushroom Magic”.
So it’s six am, wet, cold, and still nearly dark, and I’m getting dressed: long johns, jeans, denim shirt, vest, waterproof boots, big leather fleece lined coat, wool beret. And I’m still cold in my bedroom. What have I got into? Why did I slip and say “yes” when Olga invited us to her dacha to pick mushrooms, a dacha incidentally without electricity or running water? What am I doing?
I’m packing the protesting cat into a basket with a cheese cloth cover, as my Russian roommate, Mila, and I lift heavy packs of food, sheets and clean socks onto our backs and we head out the door. We run to the bus with the cat complaining loudly, and catch it as it is rolling away. Our busmates, bleary eyed and heading for work, are amused by our vocal basket, and look enviously at our heavy clothes, the sure sign of an excursion to the country. It is mid-September, the height of the mushroom season, and most of them would rather be with us, heading to the woods. Russians love mushroom hunting, and going to the country, and it’s usual this time of year to see whole families dressed in wet clothes triumphantly returning after a days outing with huge baskets of colorful fungi riding home on the Metro.
I however am still not too sure. On to the Metro, cat quiet now, across town to Ploschad Lenina and the Finland station. We meet Olga there looking curiously fashionable in front of the huge two story black and red railway map of the northern rail lines. Olga is in matching black stretch pants, with a red sweater and earrings and red rubber boots. Even her bag of supplies is in matching spotless red and black. On the great map the red letters marking our station have dropped off, as if we are going to a place that no longer exists. In actual fact it bears the uninspired name “78 Kilometers” and is almost two hours by crowded commute train. In the cold wet morning I am still wondering if it is worth the trip.
By ten am we are walking, walking, walking with packs that make my neck hurt and my head pound, down a muddy road that looks like someplace nice in central Alaska. There is every sort of small and mid-size conifer, as well as lots of birches turning gold. Pretty old wood houses like those you see in Western Washington or Southeast Alaska line the road, and are punctuated from time to time with a new addition of a fancy brick “castle” put up by one of Russia’s new grand bourgeoisie. The traditional country sound of chain saws slice the air like gunshots in the quiet void. Olga apologizes for the chain saws, complaining about their noise, but It seems to city-living Mila and me that we haven’t heard such quiet in weeks.
The cat, sensing our journey is nearing it’s end begins demanding to be let out. We cross a highway decorated with rusting steel monuments to some long forgotten Soviet general. We wander through construction sites for four story brick palaces that would cost a million or two back in the states. And then we are there, in a perfect green wood, with a gorgeous little pine cabin with porch and wood stove, flower garden, cooking/picnic shelter, well, garden shed, and an amazingly clean outhouse. On being let out, the cat, who has never been outside our apartment before takes one look at the trees, and flowers and grass, and all this natural beauty and hides under the house in agoraphobic terror.
I however am charmed. Olga goes to draw water from the well, Mila tries to coax the cat to come out, and I run around photographing everything: Olga, the outhouse, the neighbor’s chickens, the cabin. We unpack and make lunch, and the cat comes out to get her share. When she is cozily locked into the room with the stove, we head out, baskets on our arms and knives in hand, to hunt mushrooms. Mila and I know nothing at first, and have to keep running back and forth to Olga to ask “Haroshee eelee ploka?” (Good or bad?), but we get smart quickly, and soon wander off on our own, periodically having a group meeting to rest and have Olga double check our finds.
How to describe the feeling of hunting these funky looking little fungi? It sounds so tedious on paper. I never had the slightest interest in it before…and here I am, knife in hand, at one in spirit with my primordial foremothers. Guys tell you sometimes that that’s the feeling they get while hunting deer or ducks or something, the sense of being like a cave man. Mankind in his pre-technological-industrial state, doing what as human animals they were designed to do: Eyes on front of head, hands with opposable thumbs, the ultimate hunter-gatherer predator for an omnivorous diet.
Mushrooming is like that for women. Slowly, and delicately you pick your way through swampy wet thickets, crouching to avoid getting jabbed by dry branches. You hear your friends, by the snapping of twigs nearby, but you don’t see them till you come upon them. You meet a strange old man, carrying a knife, and you don’t worry. You know what he’s there to hunt…and besides you have a knife too. At your feet is a whirl of hundreds of colored fall leaves, broken branches, mud and swamp grass. Somehow in this kaleidoscope you have to see the one dot of color that is slightly different, or the one curve of brown muck that curves up not down, among hundreds in every square yard. And you can do it. Somewhere in the mists of time when human genes were mutating out of the other apes, we got the one that allows us to sort through millions of pieces of visual information in seconds to find the one piece that doesn’t match. And, according to studies on human processing of visual information, women got a double dose of this particular trait.
So I stomp for four hours, ankle deep in mud, not merely content, but genuinely thrilled. Amazement racks my brain…how can I do this? With no training? I just look at a picture of chaotic leaves and branches and muck and mire, all in shades of green and brown, and I see the tiny curve of brown in the leaves that bends a millimeter or two more roundly than the brown leaves curling around it. It is like in a dream, when you discover that you really know how to fly by just concentrating on flying. I imagine myself as an ice age woman, foraging for food, and calling this ability magic, and it seems to me to be magic still. Alone in the fog shrouded woods, with only the crackle of branches to let you know anyone else is there, you don’t need hallucinogenic toadstools to have your imagination run riot.
And the mushrooms themselves look like hallucinations out of a 1960’s LSD fantasy. Once you uncover them and dig them up they have amazing shapes. One sort looks like striated apricot colored versions of the pillars in the Frank Lloyd Wright Johnson and Johnson building, others like missiles, tables, phalluses, ping-pong balls, Gaudi smokestacks, and a whole gamut of umbrellas. Mostly the poison ones look most interesting, so you can leave them alone to look beautiful. Here in Russia however, there are the Russula family of edible mushrooms, which are perfect white ones with bright red, pink, green, lilac and maroon tops in all sorts of sizes and shapes. The Russian name for them is “Seeroyejhka” mushrooms, which means “Fresh-eatable” so you can use some of them to decorate salads (Russians never do-salad here is a small plate with a few slices of vinegar covered cucumber and tomato). They also have the advantage of being truly easy to spot.
After four hours, we have no more room in our baskets and head home. At the dacha we clean and double check our finds in the picnic shelter. It is an amazing amount and variety of mushrooms for such a short trip. We sort out the “Beilee” (“white”-Porcini ) and “Podberiozovik” (“below birchtree”-Birch Bolete) for drying at home, then divide the others in pots into “Seeroyejhka,” “Gorkoshkee” (“bitter”-Red Hot Milk Cap), and “Masliyonok” (“Oily”-Slippery Jack) types for later boiling. I find an ancient mildewed chart pulled out of a magazine with the names in Russian, Ukrainian and Latin and take notes and draw pictures, for reassurance that what we did today was scientifically rational and not just Mother Goddess magic. The cat grows bolder and wanders outside, crouched low to the ground as if she expects the sky to fall on her at any minute. We make dinner and it does, pouring buckets outside. We, warm as toast with our wood stove, munch bread and soup, and the cat comes in wet, and thrilled at her own adventure outside.
The next morning, a family of Olga’s friends drop in for a day’s mushroom hunt. Dad, with glasses thick as the bottoms of Coke bottles, can’t see them too well, but the Mom is a self proclaimed wizard of mushrooms, and is only too happy to enact the role of group leader and mushroom guru. She triple checks our finds of the day before, and tells Olga about the proper methods of boiling them. Then we head off. Moving in a large group is less satisfying or effective than hunting alone, so half way through the day we split into smaller groups to later reconvene at the dacha. When we return, we find the cat happily playing outside with the little girl, and a bunch of poison mushrooms in her basket. Apparently, even the “poison” ones have use in small quantity as drugs for migraine and arthritis, and she’d gathered some young ones for her mom to dry and make into medicine.
So we clean, and sort, and boil. Dinner is served, and we bid goodbye to the family. We shout “Schoolia!” out the door, at the cat, who now doesn’t want to come in, she’s so happy to be outside hunting bugs. So we go for a walk to the lake to watch the sun set over the smooth reflective black of the water.
We return home. On cue, at dusk, it rains again, and we hang our wet socks on the wood stove and towel down the cat as she runs inside. I take more notes by candlelight, but my heart isn’t in it. What does it matter if it is magic after all?
Morning, Mila and I go out one last time to the lake. Mila takes off her clothes and plunges naked into the icy water, and I take my basket one last time to a remote glade that is covered in mushrooms of all kinds. Some I have never seen before. I wonder “are they safe?” As if on cue, a gnarly old woman, knife and basket in hand appears from nowhere. I ask her in my bad Russian what they are. “Champignon” is the reply. Rare to find wild. The sort we buy in stores in little sanitized plastic boxes at home.
I am late. I run to Mila, basket full after only half an hour. A day’s hunt in thirty minutes. Mila says “I don’t want to leave,” and I agree in my head and heart but say: “we need clean socks.”
Back at the dacha the cat won’t come to us, and won’t go in the basket. Olga is amused, and says “Cat not want to go home.” But we pack the protester, anyway, and head for the station. On the train are dozens of others with baskets of mushrooms, dogs, cats, children, tired and dazed with the steamy wetness of the train car. You could grow mushrooms on the train it’s so wet. Then it’s Ploschad Lenina again, and we are in a different world. Grey stone floors, neon lights, kiosks selling nylons and a giant mosaic of Lenin addressing the crowd at the Finland station in 1917. It’s like a different planet.
And now, on the Metro, we are the wet people in soiled clothes carrying the colorful mushrooms home in triumph, and the city-bound commuters look at us in envy, and the cat purrs in contentment in her basket.
I spent all of 1994-95 in Russia, and after losing my mushroom “virginity” last September, became a regular traveler to the woods. Despite the pervasiveness of mushroom hunting in the Petersburg area (hordes of families, singles, friends and elderly “professional” hunters scouring the countryside like a giant vacuum) nobody whines about a shortage of fungi “caused” by “over-picking”. Russians, especially professional mycologists, in fact, find the idea of “overpicking” preposterous. St.Petersburg has spent so much of this century with starving hordes (during the Revolution, Civil War, and W.W.II, as well as present) picking up anything edible, that if “overpicking” were possible, it would have happened long since. Instead, even the most casual mushroomer will tell you that dependent on the weather each year (and from week to week), different areas get good or bad harvests.
When told of American mushroomer infighting over harvesting, Russians react with incredulity. A strong attitude of “the early bird gets the worm” prevails. One boasts of a huge harvest like a good “fish story”, complaining about a bad harvest would be an exercise in self flagellation, hardly to be borne. Kind of like complaining about losing at football, it would sound like an unsportsmanly excuse for one’s own failure.
If you want the best chance to get mushrooms, everyone knows you go out early in the morning on Thursday or Fridays, when fewer people are in the woods. If you are in any forest in midday on a Saturday or Sunday, however, expect to spend all day bumping into more people than fungi. Russians learn to pick mushrooms as soon as they can walk, and all of them go to the woods on weekends in August. By Sunday night virtually every well-known edible within a 100km radius of the city is gone, and it’s usually Tuesday or Wednesday before you should even bother to go looking again.
Unless, of course, you can read Russian Mushroom books. The average Russian hunter knows only the most basic rule about hunting: “never eat anything you don’t know,” and sticks to it, despite knowing only about five edible species. Russian mycologists, on the other hand, have made the most extensive study of the local species, and list about a hundred as edible or conditionally edible. If you follow their guides, you can still, even late on a Sunday, find many edibles which have been overlooked by others. A lot of species that are listed in American books as inedible, Russian books define as conditionally edible. That is to say they may only be edible in certain stages, or when cooked certain ways.
Serious Russian mushroom groupies have lots of books to choose from. Most have color drawings as illustrations and not photographs, however the books are much more forthcoming about eating information than their U.S. counterparts, all indicating which of the four ways of preparing works for each species: fresh, dried, pickled, or boiled. To be safer, average Russians eat no mushrooms fresh, and don’t even know what dry sauté is. But the regular column in the St.Petersburg Times for mushroom fanatics: “Quiet Hunting”, combines literary quotations on mushrooming, with exotic cooking advice like sautéing, and recipes for Russula sandwich spreads.
High season in the St. Petersburg area is in August and September, with lesser amounts occurring as early as May and as late as October. Forest conditions are somewhat similar to Alaska, however there are more Boletus Edulis (Whites) in the region, less mushrooms as a whole, and far less active worms. The cheapest lodging (about $15 a night) for a short stay in Petersburg is the Hostel Holiday, (FAX 011-7-812-277-5102) conveniently located two blocks from Finland Station, the best departure point for hunting “Whites”. Hostel Holiday can also arrange your visa for a low fee.
While in Petersburg I made the acquaintance of Dr. A. E. Kovalenko, the head of the Mycology Department of the Komarov Botanical Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences. He has indicated a willingness to cooperate with any American Mycological group wishing to make a tour to Russia. He speaks good but slow English and can be contacted by E-Mail in his name at: BINRAN@GLAS.APC.ORG he is one of the leading Mycologists worldwide. Another Komarov scientist, Dr. Sergei V. Vickulin, (who speaks perfect English) also is willing to work on tours, either group or individual. He too can be contacted in his name at the above E-Mail address.
Finally, if you go to Russia, make a point of hitting the glassware/china section of the department stores for mushroom emblazoned thermoses. Mushroom books are found in the “household” section of bookstores along with cooking, gardening, pets and dacha-construction. Mushroom watercolor paintings are sold in the Artists Market on Nevsky Prospekt, along with occasional items of mushroom folk-kitsch. Remember also that dried mushrooms are permitted entry to the U.S. without restrictions by the Department of Agriculture, so anything you can dry you can also take home with you.