Mushrooms for Moscow

In autumn, all Russians hear the call of the forest.

Caroline Dilke
Friday 25 October 1996 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

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I couldn't understand why we needed such huge baskets or such stout knives. And why were even the men wearing headscarves (tied pirate- fashion)? We must have looked a rough lot as we set out for the woods.

All week we'd prayed for rain - not for filthy Moscow, but for here, the clean, endless forest of the taiga where shiny, sticky, orange buns would be stealthily pushing up from beneath the leaf litter in response to a gentle drizzle. (They say that all over the world, early on any autumn morning, expatriate Russians can be found searching for mushrooms in foreign parks and copses, driven by a race memory of fungi glimmering under birch trees.)

The hamlet of Kalinovka, 200km south of Moscow near the road to Kiev, is a place so peaceful that the sound you hear all day is the chirruping of pied wagtails. On the garden gates of the eight or so houses lean elderly women in many layers of clothing, who eagerly engage any stranger in conversation.

The night before, we'd retrieved the key to our dacha from the woodshed and fetched water from a well on the other side of a swamp, where frogs leapt away in alarm from our footsteps on the duckboards. Then we'd lit a bonfire to cook shashlik. More logs were found to light the large brick stove inside the dacha, upon which we later slept. (It was a hard, warm, smoky bed; a high ledge traditionally reserved for the oldest and youngest in a family.)

The Russian concept of a mushroom is different from the British one. (Our own field mushroom isn't even dignified by the name of grib; it is called a champignon.) The standard, burly Russian mushroom, hunted for in the leaf litter beneath birch and fir trees, is a brown cep, Boletus scaber. The more bulbous Boletus edulis, known as a "white one", is more highly prized. Many other species, some of which might be classed as toadstools in the UK, are also keenly gathered. I was impressed - and privately slightly worried - by the confidence with which my friends picked some of the murkier fungi.

In an English wood, if you get lost you just walk on to the next road. Here, in the taiga that stretches away through Siberia, we laid sticks to mark the places where we'd changed direction. That crackling of branches in the distance? It could have been an elk, a wild boar, a bear. When we decided to turn for home, the little boy in our party was called in: "Nikita! We're going back. The wolves will eat you!"

Muscovites love hunting for mushrooms, and relish eating them in the long, cold winter. Preparing them for preservation is not so much fun. Every mushroom has to be cleaned and trimmed; then the blade of a knife is tapped firmly on each turgid, quivering cap to dislodge beetles and worms; then they are rinsed and sorted into the ones to be stewed and frozen, those to be salted and stored in pickle jars and others - the prized "white ones" - to be dried all night in an oven. Our weekend of mushrooming was to spawn many evenings of patient toil.

Returning to Moscow was a lengthy business, too. First we walked 7km, carrying bedding, mushrooms and luggage, across rough fields to the collective farm near the main road. As we walked, other parties appeared, with bulky loads of cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes and apples as well as mushrooms. In the shadow of a concrete barn about 80 people waited calmly for the bus to take us to the electric train station. When a rather small bus eventually arrived, this stolid throng was transformed into a shouting, elbowing mob armed with rusty shopping trolleys, buckets and baskets.

But all did find a place on the bus, and as we flowed onwards I realised that I and my friends were just tiny drops in a tributary that was later to lead to a mighty river of people and vegetables, tumbling onwards to the train and then through the glorious marble halls of the Moscow Metro - where I sighted the woman who had barked my shin on her bucket of ceps many hours before.

And thence to packets and jars of produce stuffed into fridges and down behind chairs and radiators in the flat in Moscow, where the occupants prepare dark, slimy, tasty stews all winter.

Warning: eating wild mushrooms can be fatal if you do not take local advice on the edibility or otherwise of fungi. Even then, you may not be safe. Reports from Ukraine say that so far this season, over 100 people have died from eating poisonous fungi. And in neighbouring Belarus, warns the Foreign Office, mushrooms "can carry higher than acceptable doses of radiation" as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.

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