The Mushroom Emperor

Fly Agaric Mushrooms

You’ll want a good knife and good protective clothing. The brambles in particular are going to grab at you – they have a perverse habit of encouraging the growth of the best Butterpilz but it’s probably their shared love of damp and cool places that is responsible for that. Some gardener’s gauntlets may prove helpful, and a long sturdy stick to both push aside the spiked canes and scrape gently at the piles of pine needles in the search for the best new fruiting bodies.

Timing is of course critical. Autumn is the general idea but that is not good enough to guarantee a good mushroom yield. You’ll want to have had some slightly cooler temperatures but good sunny days for at least a week. Rain is essential but too much and you’ll be in the forest contending with leeches, mosquitos and the slimy remains of the early crop. Leave it too late and you will be rewarded with frozen mushrooms that are woody and bleached, or worse yet nothing at all. So the end of April is probably the earliest you can go, and even then prepare for disappointment.

Reizker – the delicious Saffron Milk-cap

I recall one year crawling into a dark still place carpeted with needles, where the pine boughs formed a dark roof a few inches above my head, and scraping back the fallen needle litter to reveal the bare earth beneath studded with hundreds of orange points – the immature beginnings of the Reizker mushrooms. It’s a reminder that the mushrooms are always there, their innumerable hyphae connecting the world below. There are always fungi here, even if there are not always mushrooms. It’s a comfort to know they will arise, year after year, even if the sensation of driving nearly three hours to find nothing is a numbing one.

Once you’ve picked a good time, you will want to arrive and find a strong location. The very young plantations are no good – too hot and light and dry. Too much rockiness in the soil too, may prevent the fungi from colonising the area. State forests are broken up into blocks that may be very different from block to block – hills, water flow and sunlight will all influence the yield. Be prepared to do a bit of scouting around in your car, but your ideal spaces will have a few common features. The edge of the forest will have a evidence of good water availability – ferns, moss and other ‘juicy’ plants at the periphery are a good sign. At the right time of year you can do all your major picking on the edges, walking up the logging truck roads very comfortably.

Reizker found by the author. Note the stain on the knife blade.

Other good signs within the trees themselves are an even layer of needles – the denser areas help here because low light stops plants from growing as readily. These plants both compete with your mushrooms for light and space, and can hinder your efforts at finding them. Unused trails lined with grass are ideal as well, animal trails or old roads long since abandoned. Push aside the clumps of grass and search for clusters. In some places you will see humps in the needle bed, and depending on your luck a prod will uncover either a fresh flawless mushroom from a wrapper of brown needles or a rotting pine cone.

“He yanked up a couple of mushrooms. “Tania, can we eat these?”
Taking them out of his hands and throwing them back on the ground, Tatiana said, “Yes. But we will only be able to eat them once.”

Paullina Simons, The Bronze Horseman

Of course you need to know your species. Hubris and ignorance are a potentially fatal combination. Sticking to easily verifiable species is the safest option – ‘when in doubt leave it out’ is the truism that has kept me alive all this time, because mingled in with all the Ceps , Parasols and Chanterelles are some true killers. Death Caps in particular, which look remarkably similar at first blush, to some rather tasty species are as tasty as they are fatal. Morels, improperly cooked were recently suspected in a fatality that left about a dozen restaurant patrons affected in a European restaurant. The best strategy is to find a truly experienced mushroom hunter to accompany you. This can prove difficult, as they often guard their favoured places and times jealousy.

The Parasol – a wonderful find

One such man, introduced to me by my father as ‘the Mushroom Emperor’ fulfilled this characteristic to an incredible degree. Checking rainfall patterns across the breadth of two provinces, he kept journals of his finds, cross referenced by date, time, weather conditions and more. He would colour local maps with keys to indicate connections and data known only to himself. And accordingly his harvests were remarkable and to his credit, generously shared among friends. But his secrets were all too often his own. I dread to think of his knowledge falling into the hands of the sort of amateur who will scrape the earth bare of all mushrooms in greed. But even more than that I fear that it will be lost when he dies.

My father, the Old Man was himself, if not an emperor, certainly worthy of a knighthood in the art of mushroom hunting himself. In a place such as Europe, it is not that unusual for people to go foraging in this way. Most of my family and friends will take to the woods with the intent of finding something tasty for the larder. But the obsessional quality is what sets others apart.

When the phone rang in 2013 I was told that my father had suffered a heart attack in the forest. Being on the other side of the world, there was not much I could do beyond worry. A later update from my Uncle however was enough to ease my fears and set me to laughing. The Old Man had been mushroom hunting with two friends when he collapsed in a clearing. They had to carry him from the forest, unconscious. But they made damn sure that his basket of black trumpets and parasol mushrooms came along resting on his chest. It seems callous, but they had no option – my father would not have tolerated the loss of such lovely mushrooms. One was later to tell me that he was sure the Old Man would haunt him if he had died there and the basket had gone to waste. To be a mushroom hunter then, is an undertaking of some gravity. It connects us with a past practice we undertook out of necessity, when our nourishment was dependant more on our eyes and reflexes and wits, than the opening hours of the supermarket and the machinations of a largely imaginary economic system.

Now of course here in Australia the Autumn weather is approaching. The days have lost their characteristic bite. Recent rainfall has revealed shaggy ink caps and field mushrooms popping out of the local sports fields. I have set the seal on my own status as an obsessive by booking a vacation with a trip to the forest at it’s centre. I have a good knife waiting by the basket, and am itching to try on my new boots. In the garage a nest of strong wicker boxes awaits the moment when my family and I walk into the woods, our eyes fixed on the ground hoping for the glitter of colour to add to our basket, in the gaze of the pines and brambles.

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