Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mushroom hunting in Slovakia

I am totally nuts about wild mushrooms. Their rich, earthy, complex flavors, so uniquely evocative of the forest floor, can be used to make explosively delicious pasta dishes as well as a killer wild mushroom pizza, and they pair well with a variety of other things. I'm especially obsessed with porcini (boletus edulis, called dubaky in Slovak), since they have the most potent flavor of all of them (except for truffles, of course), but I also go crazy for chanterelles, black trumpets (aka black chanterelles), and morels. Some of my very favorite dishes in the world involve these meaty, fleshy, potently flavorful shrooms. 

And so it's extremely fortunate that mushroom hunting happens to be a popular pastime here in Slovakia. 


A life-altering tagliatelle with porcini at Liviano in Bratislava. 

When I first met Terezia I was ecstatic to learn that her parents and brother are seasoned mushroom hunters, and that porcini grow (sometimes in abundance) in the forests near where they live. Terezia and her brother Tony were taken mushroom hunting by their parents ever since they were little, and her parents still go hunting in the forests near their village whenever conditions are right. Tony doesn't go as often, but he has eagle-like vision when it comes to spotting the delectable funghi. Before moving to Slovakia, Terezia and I would both look forward to the big bags of dried porcini that her mom would occasionally send in the mail, which was an especially cool thing to receive in the Bay Area, where even buying dried porcini can do some damage to your wallet.

In the summer of 2011, just before we moved here, Tony struck wild mushroom gold one day deep in one of the forests near his parents' place and literally filled up every sack he had with porcini. He even had to take off his shirt and fashion it into a bag because he kept finding so many. Hearing about this made me salivate, because in the US (and elsewhere in Europe) porcini are an expensive delicacy - often anywhere from $8 to as much as $30 a pound, depending on the type, condition, size, etc. Ditto chanterelles and especially morels. This meant that we would usually make our favorite wild mushroom-based dishes only on special occasions.

Heading off to the forest at the crack of dawn to find some mushrooms.

Sadly, it's just my luck that since we've been in Slovakia, this year's and last year's mushroom seasons haven't been so great, and porcini have been pretty scarce in the areas where they usually appear. Experts say that this has been due to heavier than usual rain (in spring and summer) followed by worse than usual heat waves. Last spring's long winter, when the snow kept coming down until mid-to-late April, didn't help either. Wild mushrooms require the perfect balance of dampness and heat. For example, in summer, they thrive when you have some warm days followed by a good rain. But when that balance is thrown off due to excessive rain or heat, they just don't grow. So, while there have still been a decent number of wild mushrooms to be found, porcini haven't been found in their usual quantities.


Some of the varieties that grow here

Pretty much all the mushrooms that I'm accustomed to feasting on in California grow in Slovakia. In addition to porcini, you've got a few varieties of chanterelles (called kuriatka in Slovak), as well as black trumpets (lievik trúbkovitý in Slovak) and even morels (smrčky in Slovak).

A porcino/dubak that Terezia found back in the summer. 

But you've also got a slew of other porcini-related varieties, some of which I've never seen in the US, and most of which seem to be pretty good. They get a lot of what they call suchohriby, which are a cousin of porcini - part of the boletus family (boletus badius, I think?). They are typically smaller than porcini and they aren't as rich and flavorful, but still good. Despite their fleshy appearance, they're more delicate and you've got to sauté them fast or else they get soggy quickly. Like porcini, they have a round, brown cap and a kind of spongy, porous underside (as opposed to gills), although the underside has an almost radioactive green/yellow hue, which probably doesn't look so appetizing to the uninitiated. Their stalks generally seem to be more slender than those of regular porcini.

Suchohriby

They've also got kozaky, which are another member of the porcini family (boletus amygdalinus, I thinkand more flavorful than suchohriby, but also more elusive. These have kind of a wider and more disk-shaped cap than typical porcini/dubaky when fully grown, but with a similar brown color on top and the same spongy, porous underside. They also tend to have slimmer stalks, like suchohriby. Their insides darken when sliced, and when you dry them the slices turn a blackish grey.

A good-sized kozak (right) next to a young porcino/dubak (both found by me!).
Some smaller kozaky. 


Mushroom hunting

As I mentioned above, mushroom hunting is quite popular in Slovakia, especially among pensioners and Roma, when you get out into the country to the forests and mountains. In the village where Terezia's parents live, word of new porcini sprouting up spreads fast, and the pensioners hit the nearby forests like flies on shitakes to gather up whatever they can find. It's not uncommon when combing the forest to stumble on a pile of discarded mushroom stalks next to an empty can of beer or bottle of homemade gut rot, which obviously means someone's beaten you to it. Of course, mushroom hunters are always a bit secretive since they don't want to reveal their favorite spots, but people are usually willing to tell you the general vicinity (like, the forest behind such and such village, or by such and such lake, etc.); but from there, you're on your own. Either way, you've got to get out there pronto before they're all snatched up.

And you're not just competing with pensioners who have oodles of free time on their hands, and Roma, who typically go out in groups to collect them to sell at farmer's markets. You've also got wild boar rooting around the forest floors in search of these things, as well as a variety of worms, insects, and slugs.

Signs that a wild boar has been rooting around for the same mushrooms you're trying to find. 


I first went mushroom hunting with Tony back in early July 2012, and that time we found zilch. Hugely discouraging. We didn't go again for about a year, but we actually found something that time, albeit not a whole lot: mostly some chanterelles and a bunch of suchohriby, and Terezia actually found a small porcino - her very first! All told, at least it was enough to make a tasty wild mushroom pasta.

Scant, but still nice findings from an earlier hunting excursion in June 2013: a bunch of chanterelles and a few suchohriby. 

Tony and I tried again in early October, but this time we only found a bunch of betle, which Terezia thinks are related to portabello mushrooms, and a handful of suchohriby. Betle aren't super desirable, but if you sauté them in some butter and just eat them plain with a pinch of salt they have a mild but pleasantly eggy kind of flavor, and a texture not unlike portabellos. On this particular excursion we saw a group of three people with sackfuls of these things. Apparently, if you dig betle, you're in luck, as they seem to be pretty common in early autumn.

A betla, which could be related to the portabello. Not too exciting, but worth picking up if you see 'em. 
Cooking up some betle.


Porcini found!

We went again in mid November and this time we finally brought home some bounty worth writing about, including two porcini. Tony found a lovely big one, and I unearthed a beautiful and healthy smaller one whose cap hadn't really turned brown yet. Finding even a few porcini can suddenly boost your optimism, so we kept searching. In addition to a decent pile of suchohriby, I nabbed a nice, good-sized kozak, and Tony found about five or so small ones.

Tony found this lovely porcino. 
My first porcino/dubak!
I found this nice kozak growing by the base of a tree. 
The goods.

Tony and I went back to the same spot early the next morning for another look. I lucked out and found yet another porcino, this time a bigger, beautifully plump one, while we both found a ton of suchohriby. We then went to another forest up the road where we found more suchohriby, a few betle, and most surprising of all, I stumbled on a batch of four or five black trumpets. Terezia's family doesn't hunt for black trumpets (which is seriously weird because they're really a delicacy, but whatever), yet according to Tony's exhaustive Slovak mushroom encyclopedia, they are definitely findable in this region.

The next morning's find. You've got some betle in the upper left corner, a bunch of suchohriby on the right and center, and a porcino that I found at the bottom, center. 
Super delicious black trumpets, aka black chanterelles. 
A nice, plump porcino/dubak discovered and dislodged from the soil by yours truly. 


Black trumpets are easy to identify and quite flavorful - they're related to chanterelles, but have an earthier and stronger taste. Strangely, I have never seen black trumpets sold in the markets in Slovakia, but if you go to Vienna you can find piles of them being sold for a high price at Naschmarkt, and back home I used to find them in Berkeley selling for $10 or more a pound. So, I was jumping up and down at the site of these. I really wish I'd found more.


Hunting observations/tips from a total novice

Hunting for mushrooms isn't all that easy. They blend in with their surroundings and when you first scan a leaf-covered forest floor, the prospect of finding any can seem totally daunting. But your eyes eventually adjust, and if you've stumbled into a good area, they suddenly start appearing, seemingly popping up right as you're about to step over them.

Finding mushrooms amid all the leaves and other debris on the forest floor is no easy feat.


A good rule of thumb is that if you hit an area with a lot of poisonous or undesirable mushrooms, which you will generally see in abundance if any are growing at all, you're more likely to find some good ones because most mushrooms seem to thrive in similar conditions. So, when you see a patch of bad ones, it can pay off to do a closer scan of the surrounding area. Of course, if you're not seeing anything, don't waste your time - it's probably a good idea to move on to another area.

But as far as locating the good ones, to the layman there seems to be little rhyme or reason as to where they grow. They seem to be just as likely to grow near trees as away from them; and just as likely to grow near a decomposing log as on a random spot on the ground not close to anything else. One thing to remember, however, is that if you find one, it should typically have what Tony calls a "friend" nearby, so it's good to look around for some more within a radius of a few feet or so.

Another thing to look out for are little white slices or shavings of porcini stalks on the ground. When a hunter has plucked one, he or she will take a knife and shave/slice off the outer layer of the base of the stalk, basically removing the dirty part. If you notice a little pile of these shavings, it's worth having a look around to see if you can find any porcini that the last person might have missed. That's actually how Tony found his porcino on this most recent trip.

I've also noticed that we see far fewer mushrooms on hillsides that face south and get more direct sunlight and heat throughout the day and therefore are drier, whereas we seem to find more on hills facing other directions that aren't exposed to as much (or any) direct sunlight. I don't know if this is a rule of thumb for any mushroom-rich region, but it seemed to be the case here, and it makes sense if mushrooms need more dampness to thrive.


Poisonous mushrooms

Finally, to answer the question that I'm sure is on everyone's mind: Isn't mushroom hunting dangerous? Can't the wrong one send you straight to a sudden and painful death? How do you distinguish the good ones from the poisonous/inedible ones?

Fortunately, Terezia's family has more than enough experience to be able to make that distinction easily (at least in their region), and I probably wouldn't go hunting for mushrooms without them. But at least in the forests near their village the good mushrooms look nothing like any of the poisonous or undesirable ones, and if you know exactly how the good ones look, it's not a problem. You need to know what you're looking for, and you need to go with someone who can identify them if you're not certain.

The super colorful mushrooms with candy-apple red or super shiny orange creme brûlée caps may look cool, but they are typically extremely poisonous. You can also find a lot of these cute little bulb shaped mushrooms with a hole at the top in the center, from which a cloud of mushroom spore dust is released if you pinch them or poke them with a stick, like some kind of noxious alien plant out of an episode of Star Trek. These are said to be inedible when fully grown, but apparently you can eat them when they're small/young (but how you determine when one has gone past its prime, I've no idea). And there are a slew of others, some of which have exotic colors or patterns, others which look more pedestrian, and still others which are slimy and gross, and look nothing like anything that you would encounter at your local farmer's market, much less something you'd want to put in your piehole.

A good example of a poisonous mushroom, which you should never, ever eat. 
This one releases a fine cloud of spores through its hole at the top when squeezed or poked. You can apparently eat these when they're young, but not when they're fully mature.
I don't know if this one is poisonous or just gross, but I saw a lot of these in early autumn. 

I'm told that you do have to be careful when collecting betle. If they have a ring around the stalk, they're safe. But there is a mushroom that apparently looks similar to them which lacks the ring, and you want to avoid those. The rings are clearly visible, though, but if you can't tell, just leave it.

Tony has an awesome wild mushroom encyclopedia for Slovakia with good, color photographs and descriptions of every type of mushroom you can find here, including a rating of how good the edible ones taste (with porcini classified as a delicacy, for example). I wouldn't even think of attempting to forage for mushrooms without some kind of guide like this.


The resultant wild mushroom pasta and scrambled eggs

Terezia made an awesome wild mushroom pasta with the funghi we found - a seriously flavor-packed dish. When cooking wild mushrooms, it's good to use a generous helping of herbs, like parsley, thyme, and rosemary, as they really help make the flavor pop. The next night we used the rest of our mushrooms to make scrambled eggs, a wildly delicious but surprisingly simple dish, which really highlights their earthy flavor, especially when seasoned with a bit of thyme (and sautéed with some leeks).

A super flavorful and delicious wild mushroom pasta made using the mushrooms we found. 

One of my favorite things to make/eat is wild mushroom lasagna. You need a lot of those suckers to fill a lasagna, but if you have porcini and black trumpets (regular chanterelles work too) and you make it with a béchamel, the result is a rich, life-altering, flavor-packed lasagna.

A lot of people (Terezia's family included) set aside a portion of their mushrooms for drying. It's common to cook with the nicest ones when they're fresh, and dry the ones that aren't as in good shape. This is a great way to make use of a ratty looking porcini that's full of worm holes, bite marks and bruises; just cut off any unsalvageable bits and slice up the rest for drying. But drying is also necessary when you've simply found too many to consume right away. I honestly find dried porcini to be as good as fresh porcini. The drying process really seems to concentrate the flavor, and when you rehydrate the dried pieces in hot water, that water can be strained (to remove the grit) and used for an intensely flavorful mushroom stock, which can then be used to enhance pasta sauces and whatnot. Terezia's mom gives us dried porcini when she has them, and she has big jars of them in her kitchen which she cooks with when she's in the mood.

(Some people in Terezia's family like to pickle porcini, but I think that should be considered a crime against humanity. It totally kills their unique, intense flavor - a complete waste of good porcini, if you ask me).


Much like with pig slaughterings and vegetable gardens, mushroom hunting is another example of how Slovaks in the countryside demonstrate a close connection with the land and an ability to be self-sustaining, which I always find truly admirable. I hope this tradition doesn't die out, but if it does, I suppose that means more porcini for us.

At any rate, I plan on going mushroom hunting whenever I can while I'm still here. Hopefully next year's porcini season will be better.

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