Saturday February 16, 2013
Stories and pictures by YEOW MEI JYN
When in Prague, do as the Czech’s do – hunt mushrooms.
WHAT shall we do when we get to Prague?” I asked my friend, SY. She replied: “David wants to take you on a mushroom hunt!”
Really? I was surprised, it wasn’t the run of the mill itinerary when you visit an Eastern European country, but hey I’m game! From mid-May until early November, mushroom hunting becomes the Czech’s national pastime.
So local “expert” David, who has been hunting mushrooms since he was a child, chose a forest some 20 minutes drive away from Prague city for our hunt. It was an overcast day, a little chilly at 10°C, so it was best to gear up with a windbreaker or jacket – and some gloves to avert frozen fingers.
Upon reaching the forest, I was taken away to a land resembling that in The Lord Of The Rings movies. Tall fir trees stood amidst a cool, misty wind, adding to the mystery of the mossy forest, which had beautiful shades of red, gold and brown.
Ah, the glorious colours of Autumn. I simply stood in admiration and awe of Mother Nature’s palette. It took me a few minutes to return to the agenda of the day, mushroom hunting!
David set off to pluck a few mushrooms, just to show Richard and I what to look for. Basically, we were looking for the edible ones of the Boletus family.
These are easily recognisable and he showed us the popular Hríbky, a yellow-stemmed variety with a reddish brown cap. This variety tends to grow on its own, far apart from one another. If you find gills below the cap (similar to the oyster mushroom), one should NOT pick it, as it harbours dangerous bacteria.
Another important guideline: if you see mushrooms of striking colours like red and orange, the rule of thumb is to steer clear as they are poisonous. Similarly, mushrooms with pointy caps are also toxic.
What do we do when we find an edible mushroom? David handed me a Swiss Army knife and asked me to cut the stem. Clean the grass, trim off the ends and voila! He said to look out for wild boars too. Just kidding!
Wicker baskets are a must for collecting mushrooms as they help the decaying, yet living fungi, breathe better. However, we only had plastic bags with us, which filled up rather quickly. Along the drive here, we passed a local couple who were carrying two baskets full each! My mind raced through all the mushroom recipes I could think of, ranging from soups to pizzas, salads and roasted mushrooms.
We had a lot of fun peeking and crawling under logs and trees for a bounty crop. I even found some growing out of pine cones! We spent two hours more than expected because we were having fun exploring the forest, crossing streams, doing something not many tourists would do in Prague.
The mushrooms came in all sorts of shapes and colours. Some looked like pretty houses for Peyo’s legendary Smurfs, in one big cluster similar to a village, while others looked like a stack of pancakes! Most mushrooms have the familiar umbrella shape with a long smooth stem. However, I spotted some with ridged stems similar to a papaya tree trunk.
I had equally as much fun taking photos of the mushrooms as I did hunting them and my mobile phone ran out of battery juice from taking one too many pictures. We came across some dark green mushrooms with “pimples” on its perimeter, which I had never seen before. It was strangely beautiful with purple gills underneath and a second tier on it’s stem, too bad that it was reportedly poisonous. Well, you can only find out once whether the mushroom is edible or not!
I was delighted to find the biggest mushroom of the day: the beautiful Hríbky was as big as my palm! Granted that I don’t have a very big palm, but it’s still at least 10cm in length. David managed to spot a few other species which were edible, with some having a lovely shade of purplish blue.
One basketful later, we adjourned for lunch at a popular restaurant, Ceska Hospudka in Prague, which served meat and some locally brewed beer, Pilsner Urquell. Finally, I had the chance to try a small serving of Czech’s Beef Tartare, aka raw ground beef (tenderloin or sirloin) combined with sauces e.g. mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and condiments like onions, parsley, paprika – and not forgetting one raw egg yolk!
You can rub some garlic onto your toast and spread some beef on top before biting into the delicacy. Other restaurants tend to serve it in big helpings of 180g or more but this place served it at 105g, just nice for one person.
Bellies replenished, we headed home to process the mushrooms by slicing off the dirty parts and checking for any “visitors” in the form of worms and insects.
You can slice mushrooms lengthwise and prepare them for your favourite dish, and you can freeze or dry the extras to eat later. A number of species in the boletus genus have a blue stain when cut.
We made a pot of steaming hot mushroom and tomato soup, perfect for a chilly autumn night. The whole apartment also had a wonderful aroma of caramelised onions with mushrooms wafting through. The mushrooms were soft and creamy when cooked, with a little earthy taste. We topped them off with some local Czech red wine.
After dinner, I browsed through a book of mushrooms which David had bought. Sadly, it was not comprehensive enough for one to be able to identify the poisonous or edible ones. For me, it was better to be safe than sorry, and stick to the ones tried and tested through Czech families over the years.
Anyway, the next time you’re in Prague, try mushroom hunting!