Towns and cities turned into ghost towns this weekend as Czechs flocked to the countryside for their favourite pass time - mushroom picking. Mushrooms are growing in abundance; experts say they have not seen anything like it in twenty years!
It must have been a funny sight for visitors from abroad, who aren't familiar with the mushroom picking tradition in the Czech Republic. Buses and trains were crammed with Czechs and their baskets. Three, four, or even five cars parked at every entrance to a forest. Some people have taken a week off work to stay in their cottages and enjoy the mushroom season. Even restaurants recorded a loss in profit and the nation's meat consumption has dropped by one percent.
On average, Czechs pick a total of 10,000 tonnes of mushrooms a year but for 2005, estimates are much higher. But every rose has a thorn. Some three hundred people pick the wrong mushrooms and end up in hospital with serious problems. Mycologist Miroslav Smotlacha:
"I often get told that there are only some five different poisonous mushrooms. That's a very dangerous myth. There are about one hundred in the Czech Republic alone, although many of them are tiny ones that people wouldn't pick anyway. Do not believe in any of the myths you're told. For example, that the poisonous ones taste bad and the edible ones taste good. This rule only goes for the russula mushrooms. But the most poisonous one around - the fly-agaric, is delicious!"
Some people damage their organs so badly that they have to undergo liver transplants or risk kidney failure. But, there have also been a number of deaths. A 26-year old woman died this month after she ate four fly-agarics - a highly poisonous mushroom of which just a small bite is enough to kill us.
Having said that, Czech doctors last week witnessed a miracle. A man was rushed to a Prague hospital, after he ate a large number of fly-agarics. While the hospital staff was almost certain their patient would not survive the night, he made it after several days in intensive care. His wife, who made the dish and tasted it, refused to undergo treatment and is also alive and well. The only reasonable explanation doctors have was that the couple is from southern Europe and may be more immune to poisonous substances than ordinary Czechs.
So what kind of mushroom pickers are Czechs? Mycologist Smotlacha says there are three main groups:
"Some people only pick the most famous types of mushrooms - the edible boletus, milk mushrooms, and chanterelles. But then there are others who want to know more because the number of popular mushrooms around has decreased in the last few years. The third group is those who study the different types and take notes. You see them pick up mushrooms, analyse them, and scribble the features into their notebooks - they collect them like philatelists collect stamps."
I'm now in a beautiful thick forest in northern Bohemia and with me are a few English-speaking Czechs who have been busy picking mushrooms since seven o'clock this morning. Alena and Tania were kind enough to take me in (the mushroom picking business here is very competitive).
And what's your name?
"My name is Nicki and I'm eight years old."
Don't you mind getting up so early in the morning to look for mushrooms?
"Well, it depends if I'm tired. I like picking mushrooms but I don't like it when someone else has millions and I have none."
"Since he was five or six. He really enjoys it."
How long have you been going yourself?
"For about thirty years. I'm thirty-seven now. My parents went, my grandparents, everybody I knew, so it has always been very popular."
Nicki: "Look there's one."
"It's tough to explain because I learned it. I look under it and check whether it looks good. I don't take those I don't know or I ask someone. But I don't take the colourful ones."
But how do you know that this one's good?
"Because it's fluffy and like a sponge underneath. I take the brown and the yellow ones."
How many baskets have you found this season?
In the time we've spent here, we've already seen many people.
Tania: "I see everyone who comes out of the forest with a full basket, so I keep on trying."
Do you also like to eat them or do you just like to pick them?
Nicki: "I like to pick them; don't like to eat them so much."
So what do you do with them when you get home?
"My mommy takes them, cuts them, washes them, and then we have to eat them and I'm not so happy."
"First of all I make myself a coffee. Then it will be time for dinner - mushrooms with eggs and bread. Then, I clean them for three, four, or five hours. After that, I think about what to do with them I can dry them, make a soup, or use them to make sauces."
So when the mushroom's soft, it's used to make soup and when it's hard, you dry it?
"Yes. When they are good and hard, we dry them and keep them for the winter time. The others, which aren't that good are used for the scrambled eggs or soup."
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