Capturing the Summer Sun
In regions of the world where people endure long, dark winters, particularly those of Slavic cultures, many have learned a way through ancient tradition and folklore to capture the last rays of the summer sun and save them for the winter months, and today modern science is catching on.
Outside of a small cottage, on the edge of the Carpathian forest, an old man with a freshly picked basket of mushrooms is carefully cleaning and placing the fungi, gill side up, on a table in the early autumn sun. Once again modern science has confirmed that ancient traditions and folklore, more often that not, stems from solid fact. What he is doing is fortifying the mushrooms with vitamin D—vitamin D2 to be exact—before drying the mushrooms, preserving them for winter consumption. Vitamin D2 is not the D3 our bodies convert from the sun through our skin, but rather is produced by plants when exposed to sunlight, and this can be fortified in mushrooms post harvest.
Vitamin D2, although not quite as important as D3, is also critical for maintaining our health. Mushrooms are one of the few food sources where the precursor to vitamin D occurs naturally. Ergosterol, found in mushrooms, is converted to ergocalciferol, or vitamin D2, by exposure to UV light. Studies by the USDA on post-harvest mushroom exposure to UV light have verified that artificial UV light technologies were as effective for vitamin D production as natural sunlight, and that UV light was equally as safe for production of vitamin D in food. The process is now sometimes used in mushrooms sold in grocery stores today.
So many Americas long for the knowledge of wild mushroom harvesting, but without family heritages tied to the old country—those regions of the world where mushroom picking is not only culinary tradition, but also a pleasurable family activity—our fears override our desire. How often were we told to never eat a wild toadstool! Unlike the people of Eastern Europe and Russia, most Western Europeans, particularly the English, have always associated mushrooms more with the mysterious underworld, goblins, toads and death than their next meal. It is said that in reality, “toadstool” has no precise meaning, but rather embraces all the wild mushrooms that a person born into the English-speaking world does not know and therefore fears and loathes.
In general, those westerners who do collect fungi in the wild have always been looked upon as a bit eccentric. This mycophobia of the western world is deep-rooted. It is a sentiment ingrained in the perception of mushrooms since the invention of the printing press, and the earliest herbal publications. The Grete Herball of 1526, the first illustrated herbal printed in English, describes the mushroom thusly: “Fungi ben mussherons. . . There be two maners of them; one maner is deedly and sleeth them that eateth of them and be called tode stooles, and the other dooth not. They that be not deedly haue a grosse gleymy [slimy] moysture that is dysobedyent to nature and dygestyon, and be peryllous and dredfull to eate & therefore it is good to eschew them.” Not so appetizing.
This wariness of fungi was so eloquently portrayed in words by Sir A. Conan Doyle when he wrote the story of Sir Nigel, on the eve of the Black Death: “The rain had ceased at last, and a sickly autumn sun shone upon the land which was soaked and sodden with water. Wet and rotten leaves reeked and festered under the foul haze that rose from the woods. The fields were spotted with monstrous fungi of a size and color never matched before—scarlet and mauve and liver and black. It was as though the sick earth had burst into foul pustules; mildew and lichen mottled the walls, and with that filthy crop, Death sprang also from the water-soaked earth.” Now with a visual like that, it is no wonder that the Western world would be leery.
Can you imagine the dismay of the Mayflower passengers when they saw the profusion of mushroom species erupting from the leaf litter in the immense expanse of virgin woodlands of the new world? Perhaps their new land was the devil’s lair. And so the suspicions of the toadstool landed on our shores and through the centuries has changed little.
My mother told me many stories about her childhood in South Weymouth, Massachusetts, back in the days when giant elms and birch trees lined the main streets of her little hometown. She told me of the gypsies who had immigrated and settled in the Boston area from Eastern Europe. They came each year during the “mushroom months” to ask her mother permission to pick the mushrooms clinging to the trees that stood on their front lawn. They had long sticks, she remembered, with which they poked down the mushrooms and gathered them into big baskets. She doesn’t know what kind of mushrooms they were, but perhaps they were maitake, commonly known as hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondoso), as my Ukrainian friend Marta suggested. Although not commonly known as growing anywhere but the lower trunks of trees, she had picked a full basket of them from fairly high in a tree on a recent visit to a friend’s farm in Minnesota. They are also found abundantly here in the Northeast and are sometimes associated with elms as well as oaks. The gypsies came in horse-drawn wagons. “Of course, pick all you like,” my grandmother said. My mother would watch them out the window with curiosity.
In Ukraine, says Marta, in September and early October when the temperature begins to drop, the people wait, baskets in hand, for the first heavy rain. When the sun comes up the next day they are off to the forest in search of the pidpenky, or “under-tree stump”. The names are not botanical nomenclature known to the West but rather regional names that perhaps describe the mushroom’s color, shape or taste, or the area they in which they are found. People don’t worry about eating a misidentified species, as tradition has passed on many methods to test them, whether it be pinching to see changes in color when bruised, dropping into hot water or other methods. Every household has a string of dried mushrooms hanging in the kitchen waiting for the next borscht. Just a tiny piece dropped into a stew or soup imparts a rich deep earthy woodland flavor. One string of them will last the winter, as the mushroom flavor is so intense. I can attest to this, as Marta generously sent me some Polish borowiki, and the aroma and taste are absolutely unrivaled.
There was an old belief in that part of the world that “when mushrooms abound, war is in the offing” and this might be a clue to how they learned to love and appreciate such a mysterious food. Centuries of war, continuously driving much of the population into hiding, may have forced upon them a search for food in the wild woods in which they sheltered. Through trial and error they mastered the craft of mushroom harvesting over centuries, and when they magically sprung up after a heavy rain, the mushrooms became “the poor man’s food, the rich man’s dainties,” as noted by Samuel Collins, erstwhile physician to the tsar, in 1671. And although hard times would change and peace reign, they did not abandon mushroom hunting, but rather turned it into a yearly tradition and a pleasant family activity, just as we pick our seasonal blueberries or beach plums. Even during the Red Famine of more modern Ukrainian history, when peasants and the newly-established Soviet authorities clashed and the Soviets confiscated food by going from house to house emptying cupboards and leaving the population starving, the mushroom appeared.
Apparently even here in America people turned to the harvest of wild mushrooms for sustenance during the Civil War in some areas of the South, although unfortunately the tradition did not remain. A famous botanist living then in the Carolinas, the Rev. M. A. Curtis, wrote how, “During the late war I paid no attention to botany, except to the edible mushrooms, from which I have gotten many a substantial and luxurious meal.” Food was scarce, and sharing his knowledge on mushrooms to those around was such a success that he started writing a book to spread the useful findings. It was to be called Mycophagia Americana, but by the time it was completed, the war was over, food was no longer scarce and publishers were not interested.
Another well-known part of the world for mushroom picking is in the southern part of Lithuania. Mushroom picking time in Lithuania starts in the middle of summer and lasts until first frost. It is so popular an activity that, once word gets out that mushrooms have begun to appear, people are apt to get stuck in a traffic jam on their way to the forest. A friend tells me about his Lithuanian grandmother taking him and his siblings mushroom picking as children. They searched out a particular mushroom (he does not remember the name) that had a red cap, he said, six inches across without gills but rather a spongy yellow bottom side. They were instructed not to pick the ones near pine trees as they would be bitter, instead near oak or maple. When they returned home she would cut each one with a silver knife and instructed the children that if they turned blue when cut with a silver knife they were the right species and were edible. I believe they were picking a variety of Boletus mushrooms.
During the mushroom picking seasons throughout much of Eastern Europe, hundreds of pounds of freshly picked mushrooms are brought to market and sold along the roadsides. Baskets upon overflowing baskets line the streets along the foothills of the forests. Cartloads and truckloads pass by. Besides the enormous quantity of fresh mushrooms that go to market, equally as many are dried, some even salted or pickled and sold year round. It’s wild mushroom heaven!
But still, today, the Western world darts a suspicious glance at the carefully packaged “exotic” varieties now commercially grown and occasionally offered at the local grocery stores. They are incredibly good, although just a tiny taste of what can be had in the wild mushroom world. It is agreed upon by many Eastern Europeans that even the wild picked mushrooms of the forest today are not what they used to be, as urban sprawl has reduced the wild areas where mushrooms grow. When gathered fresh in wind-swept fields and secluded forests, fungi possess traces of the land on which they grew: of earth, soil and fresh air. The controlled and uniform growing conditions employed in commercial mushroom production may have lessoned their wild distinction, but even so they are incredibly interesting in both texture and taste. What you experience in a commercially grown mushroom is also quite limited, in that many types of mushrooms cannot be produced in artificial growing conditions.
Currently there are over 10,000 known types of mushrooms, although mycologists suspect that there are just as many undiscovered or unnamed. Mushrooms are classified into four categories—saprotrophic, mycorrhizal, parasitic and endophytic—each being limited to a very specific environment. Some are impossible to recreate commercially, such as the mycorrhizal varieties. An estimated 95% of plants form mycorrhizal partnerships with fungi. The types of mushrooms these conditions produce are difficult to cultivate and are most often found only in nature, truffles being one of them.
Here a few examples of the types of fungi that fall into each category:
The decomposers living on dead wood and plants: morels, reishi, shiitake, white button, oyster, maitake.
The mycelia of these fungi enter into a beneficial symbiotic relationship with the roots of plants: boletes such as porcini, truffles, chanterelles, matsutake.
Types of mushrooms that also take plant hosts, although in this case the relationship is one-sided. These fungi will infect the host and eventually kill it. Sometimes the line between parasitic and saprotrophic is not so clear: honey fungus, lion’s mane.
Partner with plants by invading the host tissue. However, unlike with parasitic fungi, the host remains healthy and seems to benefit with increased nutrient absorption and resistance to pathogens. These fungi can be cultivated without their host present and more closely associated with microbial application to crops than culinary use.
My fondness for one of nature’s most prolific curiosities, and experiments with a few of the unusual varieties of mushrooms available in stores, finally persuaded me to delve into the subject further. I wanted to understand how those who harvest wild fungi felt secure enough to identify them. To my surprise it is all common sense, observation and being aware of the world around you. It is a series of checkboxes that have to be ticked for each species and variety. It’s really not that difficult to determine what genus and species of mushroom you’ve found, the actual variety can be much harder. For the beginner, sticking to a few of the more well-studied species is recommended as there is access to more informational keys.
The checklist for identifying mushrooms consists of many simple questions and observations. This list will help overcome the fear associated with the wild harvest:
Gills: Are there gills, and if so, are they attached to the stalk? Or does it have a sponge-like underside and no gills?
Stalk: Does it have a stalk? If so, what is the color, shape and markings, if any?
Spore color: Make a spore print by snapping off the stalk and placing the cap on a piece of paper, gill side down, under a jar until the spores drop. Note their color.
Bruising: Does it turn color when scratched, cut or pinched?
Habitat: What trees are nearby? What type of soil? How moist is the environment? Does it grow on rotting debris or is it attached to a healthy tree? What kind of tree?
Time of the year: Spring or fall, temperature and rainfall.
Cap description: The color, markings and shape of a mushroom cap can tell you a lot!
Smell: Does it smell like a mushroom, have no smell, or a foul smell?
Chemical tests: For example, a drop of ammonia or other chemicals on the cap.
These are just some of the ways you can begin to enter into the world of wild mushrooms more confidently. There are a lot of good books to help guide you into making the right choice, with keys to help answer all these identification questions, and further, if you begin by sticking to types that are known to grow in the area, you are off to an exciting culinary adventure. Even if you have no intention of eating them, being able to identify them can be an obsessive hobby and a great way to get out and enjoy nature. Joining a mycological society is a way to meet like-minded individuals. I completely understand now how mushroom picking has become a national pastime in Eastern Europe. My sister, daughter, granddaughter and I have really enjoyed wandering through the woods together in search of the next amazing mushroom discovery.
As I think back on my childhood here on the Cape, I vividly remember an old woman with a black scarf tied on her head carrying a large wicker basket and a stick accompanied by a tall, gangly boy wielding an old metal bucket, weeds and roots dangling over the sides. The pair was Russian or maybe even French, they said. It seemed everyone regarded them as odd, to say the least. But oh how I wish they were here today so I could ask what they were collecting and learn through their traditional knowledge more about the wild mushrooms.