Every fall a number of families gather baskets, totes and knives and take to the woods to take part in a ritual as ancient as our species. It involves the venerable tradition of foraging for food, in this case mushrooms. Gathering mushrooms is a thriving tradition all over Europe and Asia, although little done in North America, with the exception of immigrants and amateur mycologists. When you think about it, it’s a pretty cool tradition – a lovely forest walk, the incomparable fresh air of the woods, and baskets of food that you didn’t have to grow or buy.
Of course the main reason for mushroom hunting is the wild mushroom taste that does not compare with anything else. Unlike cultivated button mushrooms, their wild cousins are much more complex, must be cooked fully, and deliver a taste and texture unlike any other. There are dozens of edible species, some prized world over, like boletus, others a reliable standby that seems to grow when every other type is scarce.
It takes time to learn to spot mushrooms. They like to hide, often in plain sight, and you have to get your ‘mushroom eyes’ on. For a long while I can’t see any, so I have to stand still, turn slowly in a circle and try and spot one. As soon as I do, somehow the eyes and brain adjust to picking out the patterns of the mushrooms and it becomes easier from there on in.
There are a couple of tricks to harvesting mushrooms, first you must cut the stem off at the base with a really sharp knife. A small paring knife works the best. Never rip out the mushroom with the base, as the spores become less likely to regenerate there next year. Secondly, ensure that there is no insect damage. Some species of insect that I don’t know the name of, lay eggs in mushrooms, which become larvae and eat the flesh until they hatch. Sadly larvae is really gross and damages the mushrooms leaving hollow tunnels that eventually collapse and rot the flesh. So – if you tip the sliced mushroom over, and see the tell tale hollow tunnels in the stem or cap – leave it for the larvae to finish off. The mushroom must be completely intact to harvest. This will be the minority of mushrooms that you’ll find, approx. fifty percent of mushrooms will be damaged, so it’s a numbers game to get a full basket.
On this trip there were plenty of wild strawberries, tiny and fragrant to snag too, and some sour relative of the raspberry that I don’t know the name of.
Once you get your haul home, it must be processed immediately. The mushrooms spoil in a matter of hours, so as soon as you get them home they must be washed, gently scrubbed clean and inspected for insect damage, and cooked right away. There are plenty of choices on this front – they can be fried, made into soup, be marinated, preserved with salt, and if fried, frozen for future uses. All preparations will yield wildly different results, and all are amazing.
Since we were dealing with a pretty small yield we decided to pan fry all the mushrooms with potatoes – a dish as old as the hills and well known in all Slavic countries.
The dish begins with a huge frying pan, some oil and a chopped onion. All the washed mushrooms are sliced, and begin to gently cook on low-medium heat with the onions.
Like their supermarket cousins they will release a ton of liquid, which will be considerably more viscous than button mushrooms, and will resemble okra, which is okay since the liquid will eventually disappear.
All wild mushrooms must be cooked fully, none are safe to eat raw, because they contain compounds which will upset the stomach and make you violently ill (not poisoned), but still not fun. Full cooking takes a good twenty to thirty minutes, and when done, mushrooms should be firm but not at all crunchy. They don’t need seasoning beyond salt and a bit of garlic, but if you wanted, some thyme would not be amiss. About half way through the mushroom cooking the potatoes are added to simmer in the mushroom liquid.
The whole pan takes on an unappetizing brown color, but the taste, oh the taste. Served with sour cream, chopped dill or a bit of ketchup, in our case, this one pan dish is a veritable reminder of the forest bounty. Sadly, or not, my camera died right about now, or else you’d have a photo of the finished dish, but it’s very unphotogenic so perhaps it’s for the best.