For me, the activity of foraging for mushrooms has always elicited an aura of both danger and decadence. I imagine a romantic scene: I trek lightly over a soft layer of ground cover amidst the early morning mist of an autumn day in Emilia-Romagna. Poking along gently with a forked end of a stick, I dream of finding a roost of fat porcini under a perpetually overlooked tree. A satisfying pluck from the forked end of a stick and into the hunting basket it goes.
There’s a reason why every hungry person isn’t flocking to the Grünewald in Berlin to hunt mushrooms in October. They’re not easy to find. Conditions must be perfect and, to avoid any potential death or disaster, a knowledgeable expert on hand. I myself, though utterly ignorant about mushrooms, had been gearing up for a successful mushroom forage for weeks. When my friend Emanuele said he knew a thing or two about mushrooms, we assembled a crew of six humans and one dog and set out on a Saturday expedition to the Grünewald’s trails. Emanuele claims that, because his experience is limited, he only picks up chanterelles and porcini but I considered his guide to be more than trustworthy since he’s a true Roman Italian with serious skills in the kitchen. We all planned on bringing our harvest back to his place after the hunt and feasting on pasta of self-picked mushrooms.
Ahh, if only.
As I mentioned, finding wild mushrooms is not easy. We started our trip at midday rather than sunrise. Mushrooms apparently reveal themselves in the forest after days of rain or moist weather. The week prior to our hunt had seen only sunshine, turning the earth dry as a day-old baguette. This is all to say nothing of the fact that regular mushrooms hunters tend to return year after year to their bountiful spots in the forest. We, as first-timers, did not have this advantage, and it may have simply been the case that all the good mushrooms to be had were already hunted. If this labyrinthian explanation has not yet clued you in, I will state the obvious: we found exactly zero edible mushrooms on our hike through the Grünewald.
Did I mention I don’t even like mushrooms?
Well, not exactly true– it’s not that I don’t like mushrooms. I just don’t like them enough to ever buy them or cook them or order them in a restaurant. If someone were to make me a dinner that contained mushrooms, I wouldn’t turn it down, and would probably enjoy it. I just cannot understand the frenzy of spending 40 euros per kilo (or more!) on very special or rare mushrooms. They’re just not my thing. Why, then, did I have a fixation to hunt for wild mushrooms? I suppose it’s the notion of harnessing the bounty of nature, just barely hidden from view, that’s so appealing to me. Sure, apple picking is fun, and so is going to the blueberry farm. But it’s all just too easy, isn’t it? Finding wild provisions, mycorrhizal or otherwise, is so much more satisfying, not to mention free. I like to think that this obsession links us back to our days as hunter/gatherers; we relied on seeking out wild sustenance not merely for our own pleasure but as a biological imperative. Find or die trying.