An autumn walk in the forest turned into something unexpectedly delightful— my introduction to mushroom hunting in Poland, a tradition here. Occasionally, I’ll see folks on the tram with baskets or shopping bags heaped with mushrooms, the result of a great haul. Also, I completely understand now when my students ask me about different words for mushroom.We started our day in Las Mokrzański, a forested area on the outskirts of Wrocław. Our original plan was to go looking for the old foundations of German houses in the forest. But then my friend noticed people carrying baskets into the forest, and I was pretty curious. Usually, the bus out to the woods is pretty empty, with just a few folks in comfy walking shoes. That day, there was half a bus full of people toting buckets and baskets. After walking for a bit, my friend spotted something, and ran off into the brush. Then we realized: it was perfect weather for mushroom hunting. It had been rainy the past few days, and the forest was full of mushrooms, if you knew where to look. The one I found the most of was maślaki (suillus in English). They’ve got a gentle, rich, buttery flavor, and tend to grow around moss and pine trees. I’ve seen them for sale in little fruit and veggie stands, and now I understood why I had to wash pine needles off of the ones I bought. I was also lucky enough to snag a prawdziwek, the Cadillac of wild mushrooms in Poland. And this is where I started to understand about the different words for mushroom. I’ve had students in my English describe mushroom types to me, in great detail, and get confused to learn that most mushrooms are just, well, mushrooms. Occasionally, we tack on an extra word— portobello or shitake, chanterelle or morel— but in general, we don’t have many words for mushroom. In Polish, there’s two basic words for mushroom— grzyby and pieczarka. As near as I can tell, pieczarka sometime refers to white button mushrooms, while grzyby seems to refer to tastier, wild mushrooms. Prawda is Polish for truth, meaning that “prawdziwek” means something like “the true mushroom.” And it’s earned its name. While I only found the one, it was absolutely delicious. It has a rich, savory, earthy flavor, and melts in your mouth when sautéed. Podgrzybek is two Polish words stuck together: “pod” means under, and “grzyby” is a common word for wild mushroom. My friend tried to explain that it doesn’t really mean “under” mushroom, but rather, a mushroom almost as good as a prawdziwek. Since podgrzybek mushrooms tend to be smaller than the prawdziwek variety, they’re said to be “under” the mushroom (as in, growing under.) I’m still not really clear on all the nuances, to be honest. I only know that of the several kilos of mushrooms we hauled back from the forest, they were all delicious.
So, while some mushrooms are delicious, some are poisonous. Before you eat anything you pick in the forest, make sure you know what it is. Take a guidebook, a friend who’s gone mushroom hunting before, or there’s even apps for mushrooms. (My friend had the Mushroom Book app installed on his phone.) If all else fails, you can always take your crop of mushrooms to a fruit and veggie store and ask someone.A few words of advice: if you are lucky enough to find some tasty mushrooms, wash them thoroughly and carefully. Also, be careful that your mushrooms haven’t already been gotten to by bugs— if the stems look suspect, made sure to cut your mushrooms in half to check. All in all, a lovely day— and now I understand all the cute ceramic pairings of hedgehogs and mushrooms together. They’re both popular symbols of Poland. The hedgie is often shown stealing fruit on his quills— apples are a favorite— but I like this picture of a hedgehog with sneaking off with a couple mushrooms. Anyone else been mushroom hunting?