Why Are Poles So Obsessed With Mushroom Picking?
default, Why Are Poles So Obsessed With Mushroom Picking?, grzybobranie-pap.jpg, Mushroom picking, photo: Vladimir Smirnov/ITAR-TASS/PAP, center
When summer comes to its inevitable end, Poles start foraging for fungi. But what exactly is it that has Poles so mushroom mad? And how can one get started? Here's Culture.pl's guide to mushroom picking in Poland.
September, October and November in Poland are filled with porcini, milk caps, chanterelles and more that are then either dried or frozen at home, given to family members or sold at markets and even by the roadside. You don’t need permission to go picking nor do you have to pay for it as in many Western countries: just respect nature in all its autumn glory, and you can take part in the mushroom madness too.
Mycophobia & mycophilia
Writing about the tradition of mushroom picking in Poland, one simply must start with our national epic, Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, where we find a beautiful description of this activity:
Of mushrooms there were plenty: the lads gathered
the fair-cheeked fox-mushrooms, so famous in the
Lithuanian songs as the emblem of maidenhood, for the
worms do not eat them, and, marvellous to say, no
insect alights on them; the young ladies hunted for the
slender pine-lover, which the song calls the colonel of the
mushrooms, All were eager for the orange-agaric;
this, though of more modest stature and less famous in
song, is still the most delicious, whether fresh or salted,
whether in autumn or in winter. But the Seneschal
gathered the toadstool fly-bane.
Excerpt from Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, 1834, translated by George Rapall Noyes
Pan Tadeusz - Adam Mickiewicz
As Mickiewicz’s masterpiece indicates, mushroom picking has been a part of Polish tradition for ages: we share it with Lithuania, obviously, but also with other Slavic countries, which were proclaimed ‘mycophillic’ by researchers R. Gordon Wasson and Valentina Pavlovna Wasson, authors of the book Mushrooms, Russia and History (1957).
This is in stark opposition to ‘mycophobic’ countries such as Great Britain, the USA, Belgium and Denmark. The British and Americans, especially, rarely venture into the woods to forage, mostly eating cultivated button mushrooms and portobellos found safely wrapped in supermarket aisles. Looking at the folkloristic English names of many wild mushrooms, we can feel their anxiety: Witch’s Hat, Destroying Angel, Poison Pie, Witches’ Butter, Devil’s Urn or Dead Man’s Fingers. These creepy nicknames really do reveal the shady position of mushrooms in Anglo-Saxon culture.
In comparison, Poles are much more open to different species. Although Wasson and Wasson point out that Poland is a country where mushrooms are both loved and feared:
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The outstanding Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, in the third book of his masterpiece, Pan Tadeusz, devotes some lines of unforgettable beauty to the gathering of wild mushrooms. But as a Russian I remark that he pays obeisance only to the Hsichki, the boroviki, and the ryzhiki. Of the others he goes on to say that the people despise them.
(…) Another Pole, Stanislaw Trembecki, a conspicuous literary figure in the Polish classicist period in the late 18th century, penned an astonishing diatribe against mushroom-eaters. He was a learned crank, to be sure, but belligerency on this theme has no parallel among Russians, not even Russian cranks.
Of course it is wrong to generalize from the utterances of intellectuals, and the peasants of Poland may well be free from the mycophobia that has infected Polish men of letters, but we are constrained to point out that as early as the 17th century that eminent Polish poet, a master of the baroque school, Waclaw Potocki, in 'The Unweeded Garden' discusses wild mushrooms at some length, and the tenor of what he says is that mushrooms are an esoteric business, best left to the few who know the secrets!
Drawn in by the mystery
‘But it is the mystery itself that pushes us into the woods!’ enthuses anthropologist Roch Sulima in an interview with the weekly Przegląd:
At least once a year, in autumn, we have to go mushroom picking. When we take part in it, it is like we’ve created ourselves a holiday. Whether it’s a Sunday or a Tuesday – it’s a holiday. We enter in contact with something different, supernatural. It’s one of the last places we forget about our technical skills and become hunters, adventure seekers. We have less and less adventures in our lives, since we can buy everything, even spiritual services. Here we can direct our own mystery, we experience it without any mediation.
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This dual view of mushrooms as both a delicacy and a mystery is visible also in modern Polish culture. On the one hand, mushroom picking is a national hobby practiced by the old and the young, and the knowledge about particular species is often passed from generation to generation. On the other, they remain something to be wary of, there’s an element of risk in consuming them – every Pole must have heard the joke ‘Let’s hope we don’t get food poisoning,’ after being invited to eat an intense-smelling boletus sauce made by a mushroom-picking family member.
Chromolithograph from Leon Dufour's Atlas des Champignons Comestibles et Veneneux, 1891, Photo by Florilegius/SSPL/Getty Images
Marcin Kotowski, an ethnobiologist and mycologist from the University of Rzeszów, underlines that Poles throughout every region generally have a positive attitude towards mushroom collection and consumption. As research shows, mushrooms are mostly collected for personal use, and the deeply-rooted foraging tradition results in quite a diversified composition of gathered species – which is difficult to codify when regulating commerce.
‘The ethnomycological research conducted in five Mazovian villages shows that the majority of mushroom gatherers living in these localities collect species that are not present on the official list of mushrooms allowed for commerce in Poland,’ writes Kotowski in his article Differences between European Regulations on Wild Mushroom Commerce and Actual Trends in Wild Mushroom Picking. It’s important to note though that the mere fact we have something like an official list of mushrooms allowed for commerce is proof of our mycophilia – there’s no such list in Britain, for example, since nobody there picks mushrooms anyway.
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Kotowski adds that picking mushrooms has become more popular in recent years, since it’s trespassed class borders: now, not only the rural population does it, but also city folk, scholars and even modern hipsters. But what is it that draws them to this ‘primal’, utterly non-modern and even potentially dangerous activity?
‘It’s all about nature, fresh air, and it’s all about walking and looking around,’ says Bolesław Kurciński who’s been foraging mushrooms mostly in the Mazovia and Mazury regions for more than half a century, taught by his neighbour in the 1950s. He confirms seeing ever more people in the woods.
Once upon a time, it was perfectly possible to just meet one or two other foragers in the woods, now one has to wake up really early or venture into much more desolate areas not to run into whole families. Even in buses right outside Warsaw in the morning, one smells mushrooms.
Theatre producer and food guide Agata Balcerzak has also been foraging all her life, which – in her case – means from the early 1990s. She cannot imagine her life without mushroom picking:
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I come from Piła which is surrounded by forests and ever since I can remember, autumn looked the same: I came home from school, left my bag, and went mushroom picking with my parents. We didn’t wake up at 5am and look for mushrooms at dawn – these were just ‘purposeful walks’. We had our favourite places – birch coppices for rough-stemmed bolete and parasol mushroom, mixed woods for penny buns, the ‘path winding next to the mill’ for xerocomus and so forth. (…) Even though I now live 400km from my parents’ home, I try to plan a mushroom-picking trip every year.
Both agree it’s not necessarily about eating what they find – one could say that the journey counts more than the destination. Kurciński claims if he didn’t have to work, he could spend all his free time in the forest, but then he’d give most of the mushrooms away – after all, there’s only so many one can eat. Meanwhile, even though Balcerzak has learned how to pickle mushrooms for her partner and adores drying and adding them to soups and sauces later on, she agrees it’s the thrill of looking for them that’s most important.
Obviously, these wild mushrooms we end up collecting play an important part in Polish cuisine – we stew them, turn into soups, pickle them in vinegar, even ferment them as we do cabbage and scucumbers. Mushroom soup is a traditional Christmas Eve soup, right next to beetroot borscht served with uszka – little dumplings filled with mushrooms. And of course, one of the most traditional pierogi fillings is sauerkraut and mushrooms. This amazing combination is also the foundation of bigos – our amazing hunter’s stew.
But if culinary purposes were all that mattered, we could just buy them, couldn’t we? Film critic, food blogger and, yes, mushroom hunter Rafał Pawłowski admits that buying chanterelles or saffron milk caps from an old lady at the market does have its charm, but it’s finding them yourself that’s the real deal:
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I once found 78 ceps and almost 30 parasol mushrooms during one trip to the woods. It’s the sort of thing that can make you truly ecstatic.
Boletus edilis, cep or porcino, photo: Xerocomus, photo: Jan Morek /Forum
Some basic tips for beginners
If mushroom ecstasy is something you want to achieve too, there are a few rules to remember:
- Safety first! Never pick mushrooms you don’t know. It’s best to stick to the most popular ones that are easiest to recognise: ceps, chanterelles, saffron milk caps and parasol mushrooms.
- It’s a must that you start foraging with someone experienced. You’re sure to find plenty of willing Poles if you ask around. If you’re on your own after a few accompanied sessions, check the photos in a reference guide until you have learned the species properly.
- Try and wake up as early as you can, even at 5am! It’s best to get to the woods before everybody else and pick the mushrooms that grew that night.
- It takes time and practice to learn the best spots, but here are a couple hints: porcini grow mostly next to pine and oak trees, but you shouldn’t forget about birches as well – that’s where you can find the delicious birch bolete.
- It’s best to put the mushrooms in a wicker basket – plastic makes them spoil quicker. A pocket-knife will also come in handy when collecting.
- Be prepared for any weather: the woods might get wet and chilly, and autumn in Poland is quite unpredictable: wellies and a raincoat are a good idea. A thermos filled with warm tea is also a staple.
- Last but not least, don’t forget about the inhabitants of the woods, even those you don’t necessarily want to meet: mosquitoes and especially ticks can be quite dangerous, so remember to use repellents.
Once upon a time, mushroom picking was simply an economic necessity for individuals from rural communities who sold them (along with other forest treasures such as berries) to people from bigger cities who had no time nor inclination to visit the woods. But no longer. Now, picking mushrooms is a real business for some – there are usually tonnes of ceps and chanterelles at farmers’ markets every year – but also a hobby for the others, young and old alike, who want to escape the city jungle and seek silence, fresh air and contact with nature.
If you feel tempted, there’s no better time to start than early fall!
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Written by Natalia Mętrak-Ruda, Sept 2018