As the sun clips through the heavy mist, the dew-damp ferns brush against my feet, on the forested slope of the alpine woodland through which I walk at the ungodly hour of 6am. Beside me walks my mother-in-law, stooped in concentration, oblivious to everything around her, including my complaints of lack of coffee and sodden trousers. She is a master mushroom hunter, and she is on the trail.
Mushrooming is a beloved pastime, particularly in central and Eastern Europe, where it has provided free sustenance, a source of income, and pleasurable (if bright and early) walks in the woods for millennia. My mother-in-law takes mushrooming to the next level. Call her while she is on the scent, and you’ll find her lost in another world, where the cares of quotidian life no longer occupy her mind. She can drift among the pines and ferns, interrupted only by the occasional sight of a deer or equally-passionate mushroom hunter, alone in the woods, gathering food as our ancestors did thousands of years ago. She is in a Zen zone, the Zen of Mushrooming. It’s a meditative pastime, but one that is potentially lucrative, certainly delicious, and pretty wonderful—but also hard work.
I’m not much for mornings, and true mushroomers will wake with the dawn and drive to the most remote wooded locations possible. They wear Wellies, brave soggy terrain, damp air, occasional tumbles on loose rocks, and long hours without any guarantee of reward. The prize of their quarry are porcini mushrooms: rich, meaty, expensive, and fabulous to cook with.
Finding porcinis is like gold for mushroomers (truffle hunting being an entirely distinct enterprise), but there are plenty of other types that make for good eating. Depending on your region, these may include champignon, morel, chanterelle, shiitake, or saffron milk cap. All are delicious, but you’ve also got to watch out. A great many poisonous* mushrooms populate the forest floors of Europe, and they are easy to mistake for the tasty kind. While nature often gives fair warning against poisonous mushrooms, with bright colors and gnarly, pustulous specimens best avoided, it is not always the case. You don’t want to add Death Cap mushrooms, delicious as they may sound, to your morning omelette. There’s even a mushroom with the dramatic name Destroying Angel—it looks uncomfortably like a champignon on stilts, and is among the most common mushrooms in Europe.
In ancient Greece and Rome, rulers had official food tasters to sample potentially-poisoned platters, with a particularly suspicious eye cast on mushrooms. With the try-not-to-get-poisoned caveat in mind, hunting mushrooms is nearly as pleasurable as eating them, and offers a rare combination of meditation, practical activity, and the adrenaline of the treasure hunt.
* Meditation may be defined as “the emptying of the mind of thoughts, or the concentration of the mind on one thing.” The two aspects of the definition unite: by concentrating on one thing, the rest of the mind recedes and rests, freeing you from the constant bombardment of thoughts, ideas, concerns, plans, and other floating mental debris. Whether doing yoga (and concentrating on physical poses or breathing) or combing the forest floor for funghi, focusing on one soothing activity brushes away the rest of your thoughts and brings a sense of peace with it. It’s a good sign that my mother-in-law loses track of time when mushrooming. It’s her favorite form of relaxation. But while yoga and other forms of meditation might only relax, mushroom hunting is meditation with the additional practical benefit of finding lunch.
You can also sell what you find, as there is a constant demand for mushrooms, particularly porcini. Prices for fresh porcini run from 5-10 EUR per kilo in Europe (where the mushrooms may be found in abundance), to $30 per kilo in the US, and as much as £50 per kilo in the UK. Mushrooming combines the relaxation of meditation with practical benefits, and the added adrenaline kick of finding a hidden treasure.
I thought that mushrooming sounded, well…nice, a pleasant walk in the woods, but perhaps not the most scintillating of endeavors. I didn’t grasp why my mother-in-law drops everything when word reaches her that porcini have been spotted in the nearby alpine woods. But then, one day on an outing with her, more an excuse to spend some nice moments with my mother-in-law than with any higher purpose, I spotted it. Nestled among the pine needles at the foot of a tree, nearly hidden by gnarled roots and decomposing leaves. My first porcini. It was like finding a pot of gold: adrenaline kicked in, I shouted to my mother-in-law, and I suddenly understood the appeal. I immediately wanted to search for more. The quiet of the woods, the thrill of the hunt, and the consumption of a delicious trophy: this was a pacifist sort of hunting that I could definitely get into.
If you have access to pine forests, then you can find porcini yourself. While not everyone is blessed with a mother-in-law who is an expert mushroom hunter, I’m happy to share some of the tips that mine taught me:
Scan for mushrooms from the bottom of a slope looking up. It is easier to see the white underside of porcini mushrooms than their brown cap, which is what you’d see from above.
In the spring, the first mushrooms pop up at the edge of the forest, not in its midst. Fall mushrooms come up within the forest, but primarily on the portions of forest that get the most sun. Follow sunbeams down to the forest floor. In the fall, porcinis often grow among fallen leaves—this means that you may need to sweep away leaves, in order to find what you’re looking for.
Phases of the moon do, according to tradition, affect the growth of mushrooms. Local tradition says that every month mushrooms grow with the same moon: if you spot a lot of mushrooms during the new moon one month, then that means that the new moon will bring more the following month.
Porcinis grow in pine forests, along the pine needle-strewn floor. Above 1000 meters sea level, porcinis grow firmer, with a denser flesh.
Etiquette does not permit the damage of even undesirable mushrooms, or in any way to make evident that a mushroomer was in any given part of the forest. Leave the forest as you found it, take only the mushrooms you intend to target, clean your mushrooms elsewhere—and leave no indication to other mushroom hunters that this is a good area in which to hunt. And never touch a mushroom bare-handed, unless you’re sure it’s not poisonous.
If you find a good spot, full of mushrooms, mark it in your mind and return there often. Happy places for mushrooms remain happy. Even the next day, more might have popped up. And if you spot one mushroom, there are almost certainly others nearby. Porcinis tend to congregate.
The mushroomer’s equipment should include: rubber Wellingtons or hiking boots, a woven basket (mushrooms must breathe and won’t last long in plastic), a good knife (preferably a mushrooming knife, with a curved blade, a ruler, and a boar’s hair brush attached). It’s not recommended that you go mushrooming alone, because the best mushrooms tend to be in remote locations, often without a cell signal, where you don’t want to get into trouble on your own.
Clean your mushrooms as much as you can in the woods, throwing aside any wormy bits, so you bring the cleanest possible specimen back home. At home, clean with cold water, but as little as you can, so the mushroom doesn’t get waterlogged or break apart.
You can eat the mushrooms fresh, but they won’t keep for more than about a day. To preserve them for later, you should cook porcini for 2-3 minutes in boiling salted water—briefly boiled mushrooms will keep better. To save for a rainy day, you can then cut them into thin slices, salt them, and freeze them in Ziplock bags, or cut them into chunks, salt them, and preserve them jarred, in vinegar with whole peppercorns, bay leaf, extra salt to taste, and two cloves of garlic per liter of mushrooms.
My mother-in-law cooks a great porcini risotto, or cutlets with a porcini cream sauce. Porcini are meaty enough to cook well on the grill, if oiled and cut thick. They are great with eggs and pasta. But you can also dry them, crush them in a coffee grinder or with mortar and pestle, and save this flavorful powder to add to stocks, soups, and sauces. You can likewise boil the porcini down, after blending them with an immersion blender, and save the liquid as an ingredient that adds punch.
*MAKE SURE YOU HAVE AN EXPERT CHECK YOUR MUSHROOMS BEFORE YOU EAT THEM, IT IS VERY DANGEROUS TO GO MUSHROOMING ON YOUR OWN IF YOU HAVE NO PRIOR EXPERIENCE. THIS ARTICLE AIMS TO BE INFORMATIVE YET INFORMAL.