“Oh, my God, honey, it’s a whole family of mushrooms! Over there! I see them, hiding behind the leaves,” I scream excitedly to my husband as we walk in the forest of mixed birch and maple trees near our farm in Vermont. The warm sun after a long rain is luminous when it breaks through the thick canopy. And I can still hear some raindrops fall from the branches.
I feel as fresh as the air around me, as I take a deep breath and smell the wet earth. Walking slowly between the roots of a giant white birch tree, I scour the ground, knowing there are more mushrooms to find. I just have to keep looking. This feeling is the same sense of being present that I had as a child hunting for mushrooms in a forest around our summerhouse.
When I was a little girl in Russia, foraging wild mushrooms from a forest was as common as picking apples from a tree. It didn’t matter to me that my shoes were wet, and I had forgotten about the scratches on my leg from a thorny bush. All that mattered were the brown caps on white legs of the mushrooms in front of me, hiding behind rotting leaves. My heart filled with excitement when, like a surgeon, I carefully moved the leaves with a stick and saw a beautiful firm cap and gingerly cut the mushroom near the ground with my small pocketknife. I never wanted to tear the mushroom root out of the ground; otherwise, the new mushroom couldn’t grow where the old one was.
This was my enchanted world, finding more and more mushrooms until I filled my basket. I ran back home with a big smile. Tonight we would have a delicious dinner—a birch bolete soup.
Nearly every day at my summerhouse, I picked firm brown porcinis and tiny orange chanterelles for our dinners. They were dietary staples for most of our meals. And today is a day like my childhood. My mother is here visiting us in Vermont, and as I arrive home from the forest, I hand her a bag full of wild mushrooms, just as I did as a child. Her eyes light up. “You know, it’s been 25 years since we’ve eaten birch boletes,” she says to me. She calls her sister-in-law in Russia and says, “Nina, Anya found birch boletes.” Nina is surprised and says, “I didn’t know they had birch trees in America.” Birch is a native Russian tree, and Nina is convinced it only grows in Russia.
My mother and I laugh as we cut the mushrooms, placing them in a medium pot and adding a few potatoes and a roasted mix of onions, celery, and carrots. The aroma fills the kitchen, and I feel like a kid, anxiously waiting for my delicious soup. I eat it while it’s still scalding hot and don’t care that it burns my tongue. I eat one more bowl and feel elated. I can’t believe I haven’t eaten mushrooms I picked myself for more than 25 years. I must make up for lost time.
Right after dinner, I get online to see where I can buy seeds of porcinis, birch boletes, and chanterelles. I find a lot of sellers on eBay—most with Russian names, no surprise. Wild mushrooms look and taste the same whether they are grown in the forest of Vermont or the forest near Moscow.
Now that I have discovered this secret, there is no going back. I am sold on mushrooms once again. This year, I am planting them all around our birch grove in Vermont. And if my experiment fails, I can go into the forest and pick them in the wild. No fear—just pure joy of connection to nature.
*Please be aware: It is vital that you know how to choose mushrooms in the wild. Many types of mushrooms can be dangerous and deadly. Please use a field guide and do your research ahead of time.