Does one pick mushrooms or hunt them? I’m not entirely sure, and the question bounced around my head as I tromped through the forest this long weekend in search of edible mushrooms.

I’d heard that mushrooms are already growing in the forests – at least a month early – and so, like all good cottage-dwelling Czechs, I headed out to my secret undisclosed mushroom picking location for the first time this year.

If you ask me if mushrooms are growing, my answer will depend on when and where you ask. If I see you in the forest, I’ll tell you, nah, nothing’s growing. Czechs you meet in the forest will tell you that, just to mess with you, even if they’ve got two gigantic baskets full of mushrooms under each arm. But back in Prague, you’ll get lavish tales of mycosporic bounty.

I don’t know the history of the strange Czech competitiveness about mushrooms, but it’s there in huge amounts nearly every time I go out. It’s like the timid little accountants all day who turn into raging sociopaths when stuck in traffic. Who knows where all that rage comes from? It’s there.

The Czech members of my mushroom-picking posse were needling me about getting a late start. They’re going to be all picked, they said, even though we were out the door at a slovenly 9:30. I don’t even know why we’re bothering, it’s so late, they said, as if the entire nation was out the door at 5:30, and the entire forest had been denuded of all growth.

And maybe they were right. My secret undisclosed forest spot had slim pickings – a few small boletus were all we found. I’d say the forest floor was still too dry still for growth.

A pinched-face middle-aged woman scowled at us in the middle of an otherwise empty forest, mumbling one angry thing or another about luft’aci – cottagers coming from Prague for the fresh air – but the main thing was that I ignored her words and checked out her basket, and it too was pretty empty. So I smiled deeply.

My mushroom-picking method can only be described as Bayesian. Bayes filters in the spam world filter out unwanted mail, but require a lot of training to be of any use – this is spam, this isn’t, this isn’t, this is spam, this is spam – and my mushroom picking was for years something similar. I’d pick up a rock and confirm that it wasn’t a mushroom, then an obviously poisonous muchomurka and so on. Which made for a lot of fun for the Czechs who watched me stumbling around the forest making various ‘hmmm’ sounds.

I’m still not very good, and certainly not as good as some babičky I know. They’re almost shamanic in their knowledge of the forest, but when you ask them how they know they don’t have a good answer. ‘You just have to be from here,’ was one answer I got.

I’m starting to understand the mycorrhizal relationship between various trees and the mushrooms that grow around them; it seems that for a good modrák (Boletus pulverulentus), you need a confluence of about five factors, including proximity to both broadleaf and needle-bearing trees, and even then you aren’t guaranteed a mushroom. I’m starting to also navigate by smell in the forest, and think I can pick up the scent of an area with mushrooms growing.

I don’t really like the taste of the mushrooms I pick, or at least not when they’re breaded and fried like a řízek. For me, they’re best in a red wine sauce with butter, garlic and oregano and served over pasta. That or grilled.

The wonderful thing about mushroom picking is that it forces one to take a different view of the forest; the micro, almost nautilus-like way a mushroom picker scours the forest floor as opposed to the macro view that one gets from parking at a prepared vista-point. Coming from a land where forests are connected to – the redwoods at Yosemite’s Wawona Grove, for example – the game of pattern recognition that forms the basis of mushroom picking is pleasant indeed.

Our party didn’t come up empty-handed at least. Everybody found one mushroom, which was pleasant enough. It reminded me of a bumper sticker I saw on a surfer’s car, parked on the 101 freeway where it hugs the coast at Ventura: “The worst day surfing is better than the best day working,” it said.

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