A Short Cut to Mushrooms

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Back when I was in my early teens one of my favourite books was J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which I must have read at least a dozen times. Along with more adventurous passages, one of my favourite chapters was "A Short Cut to Mushrooms" - in which the hobbits make their way across Farmer Maggot's fields and the greediness of hobbits' love of mushrooms is described. That description, I've always felt, would also fit well for mushroom lovers in the Czech Republic, including myself. Mushroom picking here has a long tradition and is something of a national pastime.

Every summer and especially autumn the evening news run at least a few stories on the quality of the mushroom season, showing visitors leaving the forest with stuffed baskets. Locals are able to discuss - at length - special areas, types of mushrooms, and various practices: never for example, gather your find in a plastic bag - that simply isn't done! The mushrooms sweat and quickly decay, so only a wicker basket will do! Then, on a cool autumn evening, rain drizzling on your cottage window, almost nothing is more pleasant than trimming newly-found mushrooms for a so-called "smazenice": a stir-fry with eggs on a bit of butter with a pinch of salt and pepper. There's nothing quite like it's exquisite texture and taste!

Finding mushrooms is a different story. My first years in the Czech Republic, I admit, I failed to see the attraction. Unlike most Czechs (and the hobbits in Tolkien's book) I wasn't all that keen on looking for them in the forest; it was just mildly above gathering blueberries, which is a real chore. At least, that's what I thought until friends finally took me out looking. First, there's the experience of just being in the forest: meditative, as you walk along a quiet path under the trees, the ground covered by leaves and moss. Then, there is your first find... which changes everything! Mine was a "pravy hrib" - the excellent edible boletus.

Usually mushrooms aren't completely alone, but have a little brother or family hidden round the tree. Carefully I clipped my find with a pen knife and pressed a bit of the stem back into the ground (ok I didn't really do the later but that's what the 'experts' do). It was then that I noticed, hidden in the undergrowth, I dare say it, dozens of gorgeous samples, most a perfect brown, all glazed from the rain. Slowly but surely I caught mushroom "fever" running from one part of the miraculous grove to the next, the basket gradually becoming heavier and heavier. If you remember the final scene in the western "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" (where Tuco runs in feverish circles looking for a loot-filled grave) that is how I must have appeared. For myself there has been no looking back.

This year, experts have lamented a particularly poor mushroom season: while it has rained quite a bit this September, temperatures have been too cool and would need to be milder. But I haven't given up all hope yet. Already several times in the Prague metro I've seen people coming back from the country with at least one mushroom-filled basket. I've stood behind them on the escalator hoping to catch at least the slightest scent. It's left me thinking, once again, of heading to the country soon and finding my own short cut to mushrooms.