In the dark over mushrooms

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Turns out there is much room for improvement in my appreciation of one of Poland's proud culinary/cultural traditions. Mushrooms. (Much room. See what I did there!?), writes Liz Breslin. 

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin
Being used to white buttony caps as the only mushrooms (because have you seen the price of portobellos?), it's a source of much fascination to me to head to the local market stall, with its selection of autumn leaf coloured upside-down umbrellas and thick-stalked sturdy giant's thumb thingies. Chanterelles. Porcini. Further afield, at the massive Stary Kleparz market, I find spongy glowing-salmon-hued flat caps and three distinct types of tar-and-oil-sog dare-you-to-eat-me mushrooms. I've been told the names. But I don't remember them. The tastes though, they're like smoke and soft and wonder. New edible experiences.

My Visegrad-residency housemates from Hungary, Slovakia and Czech are all over the subtleties and vagaries of the different mushroom varieties, lining up for the dankest-looking treats, slicing them lovingly into scrambled eggs or soups, leaving the rest to wizen, cut in quarters on a piece of newspaper on the sunny windowsill. They tell me to brush, not wash, my purchases, before frying them in butter. Fry them well, because some of them are poisonous raw. Not these ones. But some of them. Which ones, then? Which?

In 1957, Robert Gordon Wasson wrote a series of works about all things myco. He may be most famously remembered for the one that appeared in Life magazine under the title "Seeking the Magic Mushroom", but he's also known for asserting that mycophiles and mycophobes are split along cultural lines. There are two kinds of people in the word, so the theory goes. Those who trust mushrooms as a food source and those who fear them. Asian and Slavic cultures, historically, have been on side with trusting mushrooms. Anglo-Saxons, not so much.

I don't generally hold with any theory that starts off "there are two kinds of people in the world and ..." but nonetheless, it's interesting to me that I'm one of those kinds, descended from the other. My grandmother knew how to tell the real from the false chanterelles. When I was a very little kid, she went foraging with her sister in our local woodlands and came home and dried the mushrooms for us. My mum's never been mushrooming since.

And my own experience is zero. I'm not sure I'd dare. I do remember once being given some wormy handpicked portobellos by my brother in law and eyeing them up for a couple of hours before consigning them to the chicken scraps with a mixture of guilt and relief.

Mycophilia/phobia has something, I think, to say about our relationship in general with foodstuffs. I tend to get a bit kicky when I find fungus growing around our land, even though, in most cases, I don't have a clue how to identify just how poisonous it is. Kicking it, anyway, is only going to spread the spores. But then, if there are two kinds of people in the world, I'm not the very rational kind.

I think this fungal trust/fear is possibly the tip of an iceberg. Preferably a well-wrapped one. By which I mean I know people who trust salad wrapped in plastic more than leaves picked from a garden. And who believe that meat from a plastic tray is safer than homekill. Our relationship to science and regulations probably has a pivotal place in those perceptions.

It's notable as well that any and all the online things I read from mycophagists about mushrooming emphasise the importance of actual personal learned-and-passed-on experience. Don't rely on these pictures and this information for positive identification. Always take someone with you who knows what they're doing. (A handy grandmother, if you have one.) Proceed with knowledge and with caution.

After all, as the wise old saying goes: every mushroom is edible, but some only once: there is not much room (see what I did there!?) for error.

Liz Breslin is in Krakow, Poland on a Unesco Cities of Literature writer's residency.



'Inside'. There's not mushroom inside.

~ Lonnie Donegan Doolan Club, The Flat.