'Gribniki': mushroom hunting, Moscow style

We started too late for the professionals, but 5 o'clock was too early to rise, even though we knew others would be up and out by that time. At a more respectable time of 10 o'clock, we set off with empty baskets and slices of brown bread and cheese.

Natasha, Boris, and I were about to become ''gribniki'' - otherwise known as mushroom hunters. At this autumn time, the woods around Moscow are alive with the sounds and sights of men, women, grandmothers, grandfathers, and children shuffling through the leaves, poking at the earth to find one of the many varieties of edible mushrooms that grow there. It is a national pastime.

Being a foreigner with white number plates on my car - the Russians have black ones - I was restricted on how far and where I could travel, so we decided to drive to Bukhta Radosti, the Bay of Joys, a rest area about 20 kilometers (12 1/2 miles) outside the city.

We drove on and suddenly sighted an old man, with valenki, the black felt boots, on his feet, cap on his head, and an old tin bucket in his hand full of mushrooms. Boris was all for stopping there, but was persuaded to move on.

We parked the car and marched off into the woods, eyes down. I was determined to find the first mushroom to prove that I was a serious hunter and eagerly proceeded to the dampest and thickest part of the wood.

''Aha, here's one, pretty and brown.'' But no. ''Mushrooms have fat legs . . . thin ones won't do,'' Natasha said and, smiling, produced a fat-legged one, thick and brown, which grows hidden under fallen leaves. ''Apyata,'' she said proudly. Boris and I admired it.

As the golden autumn day threw mottled light into the silent woods, we plodded along, eyes darting back and forth over the ground. Natasha and Boris found several varieties of mushrooms - chernushki, syroyezhki, apyata. A babushka, which is a grandmother, walked by, her plastic bag half-filled.

''Too many people come here,'' she complained. ''At the weekends they run through the woods like squirrels, taking everything they see.''

She shuffled off, prodding with her long stick. ''Ah, that's what we forgot, '' said Boris, who searched around for a fallen branch. ''Now we'll find some.'' He used it most professionally.

Time was marching on and our basket looked pathetically empty. ''I have an idea,'' Natasha said. ''We'll stop at the market on the way home and buy two rubles' worth. Our friends will expect more than this from a day's outing.''

Then I found it: white, fat-legged, with a brownish-green moleskin-like top. ''Molodets'' (''well done''), my friends said, beaming. ''That's a mokhovik, and one of the tastiest.'' And certainly one of the best hidden, I thought.

Encouraged, I searched all the harder, but by the end of the day I had only added a total of three to the basket. I certainly hadn't fulfilled my plan for that day.

But being a foreigner, I got to eat them all. As much as I protested and offered to divide them into three, Natasha held firm: ''You must taste all these varieties,'' she said.

Champignons they were not, but, mixed with sour cream, they made a savory, if somewhat chewy, meal after a day in the fresh air.

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