The Czech Tradition of Mushrooming
In his famous book about aesthetics and philosophy, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that “we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” In the Czech Republic, we can easily rephrase the quote as, “we should consider every summer lost in which we have not picked mushrooms at least once.”
Every summer, locals venture out to collect and consume large quantities of mushrooms. In fact, the Czech University of Life Sciences revealed in its 2017 annual report that around 27,700 tonnes of mushrooms were picked by fungi lovers in the same year. That’s an astonishing seven kilos per household! The pastime has been practiced in the Czech Republic for many years. In fact, the only time in recent history that Czechs did not pick mushrooms was in 1986, because people were afraid of potential radioactivity from acid rain after the Chernobyl disaster.
The Czech Republic’s landscape is rich with lush green forests and rolling hills, both of which provide a perfect environment for fungi to grow abundantly and in great variety. Furthermore, the warm, windy, and sometimes rainy summer weather helps to produce the perfect climate for mushrooms to thrive between May and September each year. There are estimated to be over 1,500 species of mushrooms in the Czech Republic.
Locals have easy access to nearby forests and mushrooms, even if they live in big cities like Prague or Brno. Hvězda forest park, Stromovka, Strahov, Klánovický les, and the Šárka Valley are all good places to go mushroom hunting, and all of them are located in or close to the capital. Destinations such as Příbram, Plzeň, Křivoklát, and forests in Central Bohemia are also frequently visited during mushroom hunting season.
It is said that the origin of mushroom hunting in Bohemia can be traced back centuries to when mushrooms were seen as “meat for the poor.” Even if some special types of Czech mushrooms such as boryl actually burned the tongue, hunger drove people to eat them. Nowadays, rather than being an activity necessary for finding a source of nutrition, hunting for mushrooms is more a life ritual for most Czechs, where family members bond and share knowledge on the dos and don’ts of mushrooming. Children are educated at school about mushrooms and their edibility, and for those who are not sure, the Czech Mycological Association’s website is a good portal to the world of wild mushrooms. Nowadays, Czech mushroom apps also equip amateurs with AI technology to decide if a particular species is safe to eat or not.
But the mushroom hunting pros don’t need these. Instead, they turn their leisure activity into more of a national sport. They rise early, throw on their special costumes, and head out into their own secret patch of forest with wicker basket and sharpened knife in hand. When they are satisfied with the harvest, they will carefully cover the remaining mushrooms with leaves so no other hunters will spot and pick them. Some take the pastime so seriously that upon encountering other mushroom hunters, they might take a sneaky peek into their basket to see who the winner of today’s “competition” is.
Different mushrooms are used for different recipes. Those that grow as big as a dinner plate are often coated with beaten eggs and breadcrumbs and fried like schnitzel. The small, ginger-coloured liška is a perfect ingredient for delicious mushroom soup, while some other smaller and softer species are best smashed into mushroom sauce. Other local specialties such as sour mushroom soup and butter-fried mushroom with eggs or bacon are also popular. If more mushrooms are picked than can be consumed over the next few weeks, they can either be dried in the sun or pickled in vinegar to be enjoyed months later. Some families even use summer-picked mushrooms in their Christmas meal.
In the Czech Republic, the tradition of mushroom picking is not just a leisure activity. For most people, it’s a ritual they look forward to all year. And once the season arrives, friends and families gather together to create fond memories while spending quality time interacting not just with nature, but also with each other.