The Hunt

bakony forest, hungary

I’m prone to romantic notions, and since so far they haven’t gotten me in too much trouble, I haven’t been inspired to change. Mushroom foraging as a hobby is one of my long-held romantic notions that started back when I first read Thomas Keller and Michael Rhulman’s account of the mushroom hunter in the French Laundry Cookbook 10 years ago.

My friend Robyn at King Arthur Baking Center in Norwich, Vermont, where I sometimes teach, is a mushroom forager and promises to teach me what she knows, but so far most of my visits there have been under piles of snow. The closest I’ve ever come to mushroom foraging is a wild goose chase around Italy in pursuit of truffles after a lead from a stranger, in Italian, led me to three tiny towns before I found myself staring at a shelf lined with preserved truffle products. Clearly my conversational Italian could use some work, but that’s another story.

I first got the idea for mushroom hunting in Hungary from a pack of wild boars. On our first trip to Hungary together, András and I were hiking in the Bakony forest where he spent his boyhood summers, when we discovered oak trees whose roots had been ravaged by wild boars. What little I did know about mushrooms told me one thing—this was a truffle hunt. Since we don’t have a trained pig, nor a trainable dog {yet another story}, I decided I would settle for less exotic mushrooms, any mushrooms; preferably not poisonous, and hopefully tasty.

On my second trip to Hungary, last May, I began each day with a request for him to take me on a mushroom hunt, something his mother claims he loved to do with his Aunt Klari as a child. Each day when we’d ask Klari, she would stroke my cheek with the back of her hand, and tell us, in Hungarian, to wait until it rained. That was a dry year.

This year it rained each and every day of our trip except for Saturday, the day of our wedding. So today, when the sky finally did clear, I saw families walking towards the fields, forest and hills swinging their baskets, in search of loot. Sure that all the rain had bestowed good fortune for my hunt, I ran to get Klari, who I found gathering peas with Anya in the field behind the house. András and Apa were busy building a frame for our old farm sink. If I wanted fresh peas for dinner that night, and a working sink, I would have to go alone.

I knew the danger involved. Mushrooms can be poisonous, or worse, deadly. When foraging, nothing beats a local expert, but in a pinch, a handy mushroom guide with full color photos warning me what to and what not to pick would do. Instead, I got two rules from Apa, who had also grown up foraging mushroom in these same woods.

  1. Don’t pick anything with a red or brown skirt on the stem
  2. Wear gloves

They pointed toward the far fields that bordered a creek leading to the woods. Start with field mushrooms, he instructed, and look near the piles of manure. Set out into the field hot sun, feeling smart in my little fedora confident that my large empty basket would be at least half full by the time I came home.

Before long, I had company. Two dragonflies buzzed incessantly around my head, following me no matter how far or fast I walked. And the field was producing nothing, so I detoured toward the creek where I found an opening through stinging nettles that sloped down straight into the center of the clear, shallow creek. They’ll never find me down here, I thought. I walked the creek, ducking below the low hanging branches feeling a bit like Indiana Jones.

Within minutes in the creek found a dozen small white mushrooms with gently sloping caps at the root of a tree, perfectly white, no skirt. I put on my gloves and picked them. Beginners luck, I thought! I was sure there would be many more to come. I walked on. The water quickly got deeper and murkier, and soon I was up to my knees. As I lost sight of my legs below me, I wondered what kind of killer snakes might live in these waters. And then, the dragonflies found me again.

Never once during my mushroom hunt did I worry about dying from touching or eating a potentially deadly fungi, but the list of other ways I could go suddenly consumed me. Killer Hungarian Dragon Flies, Stinging Nettle Overdose….quick sand.

My feet sunk into deep wet sand and I was stuck.

In seconds my mind went to the dark places, wondering how long it would take them to find me beneath the canopy of trees. Would they wait until dark? Find me two days later, dehydrated with cracked lips and flies swarming around my eyes? Or would they find my basket floating along in the water with a tiny handful of mushrooms like Moses on the Nile?

Stay calm, I thought. Wet sand sucked at my sneakers but I resisted its pull, securing my loot on a high branch before pulling myself out. The taste of surviving such peril left me hungry for more, so I pressed on. I found a tree with hundreds of mushrooms too young to pick. I marked the location in my mind and moved on. But the deeper I pressed on, the more hopeless my case became. My feet were muddy to my calves, I was beginning to get hot and hungry, and the only sign of edibles I’d seen in the last 100 km was snails, hundreds and hundreds of snails. If there were glory in snail hunting, I’d surely be legendary.

I have years to learn this land, I told myself, and returned home, swinging my basket to find András, Anya and Apa picnicking under a plum tree on fresh, tomatoes and raw onions from the garden.

I flashed my basket in front of Apa.

Jo,” He said. Good. He popped one in his mouth and smiled.

I waited a few minutes, checked his pulse, and followed. They were beautiful, but tasteless. I took them inside and weighed them. After our tasting, they yielded just .08 ounces—hardly enough for a meal, but just enough to leave me hungry for more.

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Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.