MOSCOW — When Russian children learn the alphabet, they are taught that "G" is for gryb, which is Russian for mushroom. By the time they are learning to read, they have long been familiar with mushrooms.
From birth, their mothers often put them to sleep with a nursery rhyme in which the borovik, a kind of mushroom, plays a prominent role, and before long they will know by heart the poem "Panic Among the Mushrooms." Its main character is the captain of the mushrooms, a large but not very tasty lactarius piperatus. The captain can't find soldiers to go to war. The agarics, the morels, the boletus, the saffron milk caps refuse, one after the other, for various reasons.
"These stanzas, with their shrewd comments on the diverse species, are the didactic and mnemonic device by which people's rich mushroom lore is passed on to the next generation," wrote Valentine Pavlova Wasson in "Mushrooms, Russia and History," an erudite two-volume work of ethnology.
For mushrooms are at the core of Russian culture. Gathering, cooking, preserving, and eating mushrooms is "almost an epic definition of Russianness" writes Joyce Toomre, an American specialist in Russian culinary culture.
It is almost not an exaggeration to say that all Russians, to various degrees of proficiency, are mushroom-pickers. And when they refer to mushrooms, they do not have in mind the white rhizomes cultivated in the darkness of cellars that one can buy in a store. Those do not even merit a Russian name. They are simply called by their generic French word "champignons," pronounced with a Russian accent. Mushrooms can only be the wild ones springing up in the Russian forest, a lyrical world in itself.
Mrs. Wasson considers that by age 8, an average Russian child is able to fill up his own basket, and I have noticed with my own boys that because of their size, children are quite good at spotting mushrooms. Even when they grow up, though, it seems this ability doesn't abandon Russians, wherever they live.
Vladimir Lenin himself, while in exile in Switzerland in 1916, was rushing to catch a train in the rain. He spotted some mushrooms at the side of the road, stopped, filled a whole bag - and missed his train. His wife, a drenched witness, told this unexpectedly human anecdote about the Bolshevik leader in a letter.
Russians abroad perpetuate this native obsession even today. Zinovi Ziniki, for example, who now lives in England, recently wrote a novel on this familiar theme: "The Mushroom Picker."
Mushrooms have traditionally sprouted in Russian literature, as well as in its forests. They are central to three major scenes in Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and to one chapter in "War and Peace." They appear in Gogol's "Old World Landowners" and Pushkin's "Evgeny Onegin."
Illustrating their importance in the folk world, they long ago made it into sayings and proverbs, and the word gryb is at the root of many family names. Mushrooms have even been a matter of concern for the Russian Orthodox Church, which was careful not to ban them on fast days, except during Holy Week.
One would be hard pressed, however, to consider them as a lean or penitent food, particularly when one's plate is heaped with a generous helping of gryby c'smetanoi (mushrooms in sour cream), a classic of Russian cuisine, which is at its best if prepared with byely (boletus), the czars of the Russian forest, cousins to the French cepe or the Italian funghi porcini
The boletus's powerful fragrance and firm taste justify its ranking at the top of the Russian mushroomic scale, but its appearance is preceded by an aromatic palette that follows the rhythm of the seasons. The morels come first, then high summer brings the saffron milk caps that Russians like to salt or pickle, while they prefer to dry the boletus that crowns the autumn.
Dried mushrooms bring an excellent flavor to the winter soups. Russians also use mushrooms for stuffing the patties called pirogi or pelmeny, the Siberian ravioli.
These four or five contemporary variations on mushrooms pale beside the wealth of recipes given in a 19th-century Russian cookbook. But some of them are impossible to prepare nowadays. Local truffles have been unheard of for a long time, maybe because nobody keeps tamed bears anymore, trained to unearth these extravagantly expensive fungi. French truffle-hunters still use the prosaic pig for the same task.
Only the Korjalis, an ethnic group on the remote Kamchatka peninsula, consume mushrooms (amanitus) for their hallucinogenic effects, as the Maya Indians do in southern Mexico and Guatemala.
It is not known whether the 50 or so deaths by mushroom poisoning that occur every year in Russia are all accidental. To be aware of the lethal capacities of some mushrooms, one doesn't need to know that in ancient Rome, another variety of amanitus was Agrippa's weapon against her husband, Claudius.
To explain the largely benign Russian obsession with mushrooms, Wasson ventures an interesting theory: "A people who always had an abundance of other foods are little tempted to brave the initial perils of the mushroom world," she writes. "However, in the desperate exigencies of all out war ... through generations and centuries ... where the unslaughtered remnants of the population hide in woods and fields, people go back to mushrooms."
By picking, preserving, drying, cooking, and eating mushrooms, contemporary Russians are perhaps inhabited by the collective memory of their tragic past.
Use a variety of mushrooms: some wild ones, perhaps, or a mixture of oyster, chestnut, and shiitake mushrooms, with button mushrooms to make up the weight. Or you can simply use the white mushrooms available at many local stores. The amount called for below will seem like a lot of mushrooms, but they cook down. Serve with boiled rice. Serves four.
2 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 lbs. mushrooms (see note above), sliced
1 cup creme fraiche
1 tsp. tomato paste
freshly grated nutmeg
salt and freshly ground black pepper
paprika, to garnish
Melt the butter with the oil in a large saucepan over moderate heat. Add the onion, cover, and cook for five minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 2-3 minutes.
Add the mushrooms and cook, uncovered, over moderate heat until the mushrooms are tender and much reduced, and most of the liquid has evaporated: 20-30 minutes.
Stir the creme fraiche and tomato paste into the mixture, turn up the heat, and bring to a boil. Allow to bubble for 1-2 minutes.
Season with nutmeg, salt, and black pepper and serve sprinkled with paprika.
- From 'The Classic Vegetarian Cookbook,' by Rose Elliot (Dorling Kindersley)
In cooking mushrooms, fresh wild ones are best, but dried ones are good substitutes for the real thing and can be found in specialized Russian food stores. Only a mycologist or a picky Russian cook would object to the use of their French or Italian versions - cepes or fughi porcini.
With dry mushrooms, first soak them in water for a few hours, strain them well, then use them as if they were fresh. (Keep the water they have soaked in to improve a sauce or gravy.)