Mushrooming knowledge

It’s truffle season and Istria is famous for its truffles, but this is only a tiny fraction of its fungi offering. In autumn, when conditions are right, Istria’s woods are full of wild mushrooms: the weird and the wonderful, the tiny and the tremendous, the delicious and the deadly. And as the fungi appear, so do the mushroom hunters: experts, passionate about fungi, who trawl the woods hunting delicacies. Wanting to know more about this potentially lethal pastime, I spent a morning walking the woods with Marija, my expert on edible nature, hoping to learn more and maybe collect my lunch.

Parasol mushroom in IstriaI first got interested in mushrooms in 2010: the year of the fungi bonanza. Mushrooms are very weather dependent and, in 2010, conditions were perfect. A wet spring and normal summer was followed by a warm, wet autumn – fungi heaven! Strolling with P through the woods, surrounded by wild mushrooms in all shapes and sizes, I decided I had to learn more. I bought some books and started studying, but with the potential penalty for getting it wrong being death, I decided to play it safe – very safe! I really only felt confident harvesting the huge parasol mushrooms, but knew I was missing out on so much more.

After a terrible mushroom season in 2011 due to lack of rain, this autumn started wet so I determinedly set out into the woods with Marija.


Is there anything out there?

According to Marija, there’s a huge range of edible fungi, you just have to know what you’re looking for. Also, different varieties grow in different areas and at different times, so you need to know where and when to look. “We might not find Martincica mushroom in Istriaa lot,” she said, “but I’m sure we’ll find something and, if we’re lucky, we’ll find some martincica!” I hoped so too, as I’d heard a lot about this delicious mushroom, but never tasted it – yet. It’s rare in the UK and North America, but here it’s a highly prized delicacy.

Like all serious mushroom hunters, Marija keeps a regular check on various parts of the woods near her home. “It’s been a strange year so far,” she said, as we walked down the lane. “I’ve found many varieties I’ve never seen in these woods before and many of my usual ones are nowhere to be found.”

Golden chantarelle mushroom in IstriaOur hunt started and, it seemed, we were out of luck. In areas where the ground was usually carpeted with mushrooms, we found only a few and, frustratingly, most were inedible. But at least they were there and definitely more than last year, when I barely saw a toadstool. “If there are inedible mushrooms here, the tasty ones should also be here,” I kept telling myself, fingers crossed, eyes peeled.

We tried Marija’s main chantarelle hunting patch and found just one, her keen eye spotting it hidden beneath the leaf litter. “At this time of year, they’re usually everywhere,” she said. “I’ve often picked basket after basket of golden chantarelle here.”

Common puffball in IstriaWe persevered and, after a while, began to find edible varieties. We might not be getting a mammoth haul, but enough to make us keep hunting. Dotted here and there were common puffballs (also known as Devil’s Snuffbox – a wonderful name). In a good season these grow in great clumps. This year, they were sprinkled more sparingly, but there always seemed to be another one … just over there. According to Marija, if picked young and firm, with a white interior, puffballs are greateating. They’re also very distinctive and easy to find. I was delighted: I’d found the first addition to my mushroom picking list – I now knew two!

Looking up from picking a puffball and wondering if we’d find any parasol mushrooms, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with exactly that – an enormous parasol, a good 20 cm across! As instructed, I took only the cap, leaving the stem and roots to grow again. It was an ideal size for stuffing and baking – yum! Soon afterwards, we found yet more parasols, but none as big as that first one.

Black trumpet mushroom in IstriaProbably the highlight of our hunt was finding a few, very early, black trumpets (again very easily identifiable, looking exactly like their name). These highly prized fungi are wonderful when dried. Later, sniffing some that Maria had already dried, they smelled like top quality porcini. Apparently, they also smell like black truffle, but  I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never seen one, let alone sniffed it! “They’re great for flavouring soups and stews,” said Marija, “but I’m very surprised we found any, as I wouldn’t normally expect to see them until the end of the month.”

Wood blewit in IstriaAnother great find were wood blewits, which I really had my doubts about. With their slippery texture and purple colour, I’d never have pegged them as edible – but they were certainly distinctive, so my list grew to three.

I was equally doubtful about the bay bolete, with its spongy, yellow underside and brown cap. Marija was thrilled to find it, as apparently it’s a real delicacy – even if it didn’t look like one to me.

Bay bolete mushroomWhile I had my eye out for easily identifiable edibles, Maria was checking out the rarities, picking examples to take home and check out later. “It’s the best way to learn,” she said. “But always remember, if in doubt, don’t even pick it.” Good advice: I could imagine, as you discover more and more you can eat, it would be all too easy to get complacent and accidentally make a mistake!


A great haul

After two hours strolling around the woods, heads down, eyes peeled, we’d collected a basket-full. I was delighted: as well as the makings of several dinners, I now had five new mushroom varieties which I felt comfortable picking, Basket with Istrian wild mushroom selectionincluding some real delicacies. And we both added another one – almost. The horse mushroom is white and innocuous-looking much like a common field mushroom, the type you buy in the supermarket. It’s said to be delicious, but unfortunately we weren’t completely sure. It looked identical to the picture in the book, but there were also several very poisonous ones which didn’t look much different. So, after gazing longingly at it for a while, we decided to play safe and reject it. When it comes to mushrooms, the seemingly familiar can prove deadly, while sometimes the weird and strangely-coloured can prove delicious. It’s a good job I went out with an expert! And did we find the martincica Maria hoped for? Unfortunately not. Maybe next time.


Trying it yourself

Have I whetted your appetite? Before you grab a basket and head into the woods, it’s worth repeating: fungi can be lethal so always make sure you know what you’re picking. While there are plenty of books and websites out there, at first it’s best to go out with an expert. They can show you exactly what’s safe to eat, what tastes great and what’s down-right dangerous.

So where to find the expert? I went on-line for a look. With Istria being such a great place for wild mushrooms, I was sure I’d find lots of mushrooming activities, but I’m afraid not. I found absolutely nothing! While there’s plenty on Istrian truffles and where to buy them, reports of fairs, and tales from other pickers, I couldn’t find anyone offering courses or even educational wood walks. I’m afraid, for now, these skills are only being handed down informally. You’ll need to find your own expert.

But don’t be downcast. If you can’t pick wild mushrooms, you certainly can eat them! In the autumn, they are often top of the informal menu in the konobas – grilled on the open fire, forming the heart of a traditional stew or soup, or simply sliced in salads. Just ask. For example, Konoba Kaštel, near me, offers grilled martincica and giurdani salad among its mushroom dishes.

Alternatively, if you fancy cooking them yourself, keep your eyes open the next time you’re in an Istrian market. Many stall holders, who grow their own produce, are also avid mushroom hunters and willing to share their finds – for a price. But be quick: locals who don’t have the time to look themselves are after these too, so they’re never around for long!


What we got

Here’s the list what we found in our morning’s hunt – just a few of Istria’s wonderful selection of wild mushrooms:

Latin English Croatian
Agaricus arvensis Horse mushroom Lipika gralj
Cantharellus cibarius Golden chantarelle Lisicarka
Calvatia excipuliformis Pestle puffball Vrecasta puhara
Clavariadelphus pistillaris Pestle shaped coral Veliki buzdovan
Craterellus cornucopioides Black trumpet Crna trombenta
Lepista nuda Wood blewit Modrikaca
Lycoperdon perlatum Common puffball Tikvasta puhara
Lyophyllum fumosum ? Kostanjevcica
Macrolepiota procera Parasol mushroom Suncanica
Macrolepiota mastoidea Slender parasol (rarer) Suncanica
Xerocomus badius Bay boletus Crvenkasti baršunovac

Hopefully, soon we’ll add, clitocybe geotropa quelet (trooping funnel / monk’s head, or  martincica) to our list.

First posted January 2013


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