Ukrainian Mushroom Feasts
by Kate Heyhoe
"They gathered a whole basketful of mushrooms; even Lily found a birch mushroom. It had always happened before that Miss Hoole found them and pointed them out to her; but this time she found a big one quite of herself, and there was a general scream of delight, "Lily has found a mushroom!"
—from Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
From July to October, Ukrainian forests softly rumble with the gentle footsteps of mushroom gatherers. Throngs of them. Women, men, grandparents, children from toddlers to teens—all take part in the hunt. It's practically a national sport, and most decidedly a culinary obsession.
Ukrainians, and their Russian neighbors, go wild for wild mushrooms. Morels, chanterelles, and untold other varieties get plucked, picked, and plunked into baskets and buckets, before being carted off to the dacha, or summer cabin. Once in the kitchen, the earthy little fungi may be tossed into garlicky marinades; strung together and dried; baked in sour cream; fried in butter; or simmered in soups. They're cooked alone as the main ingredient, or combined with cheeses, yogurt, beef, or chicken.
Mushroom hunting, though, is not without its perils. Hundreds of people die or fall ill each summer in the Ukraine and Russia because of poisonous mushrooms. According to CNN, Russia's Surgeon General Gennady Onishchenko warned in 2000 that a local variety of the blednaya poganka, or death cap, had mutated to look like ordinary champignons. Of the millions of mushroom hunters annually, some pursue the hunt purely for the sport and culinary enjoyment, others do it out of poverty, and some sell their mushrooms in big city markets. "The financial incentive is enough to make the vendors include a few risky ones in their stock," reports CNN.
Casting all dangers aside, mushroom hunters nonetheless enjoy the romance of the hunt, and the casualties are relatively few by comparison. Most are caused by carelessness, and the more cautious consult mushroom experts for a second-opinion on any questionable specimens. One of the most descriptive passages on Russian mushrooms is written by Dr. Tara Maginnis in her article "Mushroom Hunting at a Russian Dacha":
"And the mushrooms themselves look like hallucinations out of a 1960's LSD fantasy...One sort looks like striated apricot colored versions of the pillars in the Frank Lloyd Wright Johnson and Johnson building, others like missiles, tables, phalluses, ping-pong balls, Gaudi smokestacks, and a whole gamut of umbrellas. Mostly the poison ones look most interesting, so you can leave them alone to look beautiful. Here in Russia however, there are the Russula family of edible mushrooms, which are perfect white ones with bright red, pink, green, lilac 'Seeroyejhka' mushrooms, which means 'Fresh-eatable,' so you can use some of them to decorate salads (Russians never do—salad here is a small plate with a few slices of vinegar covered cucumber and tomato). They also have the advantage of being truly easy to spot."
Pickled and dried mushrooms line the Ukrainian and Russian winter pantries. Here in North America, we're apt to buy fresh cultivated mushrooms year-round, but I still stock dried shiitakes, porcinis, and even plain dried cultivated mushrooms. Their intense, concentrated flavors are especially powerful when ground into powders, without reconstituting, and tossed into breaded coatings, sauces, and vegetables.
To celebrate fall, I've selected an assortment of mushroom recipes below—a culinary toast to the fungus among us!
Kate's Global Kitchen for October 2002:
10/04/02 Ukrainian Mushroom Feasts
10/11/02 Tarka, Ghee and Me: Quick Warm Ups with Indian Spices
10/18/02 New Zealand Spinach, or Bushy Warrigal Greens
10/25/02 Taking the Pumpkin Out of the Pie
Copyright © 2002, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created October 2002