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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Hunt Is On, Gather 'Griby' While You May

This is my favorite time of year in Russia, the season of the tikhaya okhota, or "quiet hunt." Dawn in a sun-specked birch forest, the air bracing and full with silence, the thrill as one emerges into a clearing at the very center of which stands a squat, fleshy belyi grib (white mushroom). There is nothing else like it in the world.


Although mushroom hunting is properly a solitary experience, foreigners are most likely to khodit' za gribami (go mushroom hunting) with Russian friends and so will need a few simple phrases to be able to talk the talk. The mushroom hunter is called a gribnik, and the basic tools of the trade are a korzinka (basket), to keep the quarry fresh and undamaged, and a nozh (knife), since mushrooms must be cut rather than picked in order to avoid damaging the roots. A gribnitsa, it should be noted, is NOT a female mushroom hunter, but the complex, often far-flung, mushroom root system that turns an ordinary patch of ground into that holiest of holies, a gribnoye mesto (a mushroom place).


The accomplished gribnik comes home with a basket full of belye griby (white mushrooms; also known as tsar' gribov, the tsar of mushrooms). Other prime quarry are podosinoviki, which are named for a supposed predilection for growing under (pod) aspen trees (osiny), and podberyozoviki, which are supposedly found under birch trees (beryozy).


The less skilled hunter will come home with a smattering of s'edobnye (edible) and nes'edobnye (inedible) mushrooms. Any inedible or undesirable mushroom is called a poganka, and the king of poganki is the dreaded blednaya (pale) poganka. The blednaya poganka is so feared that your hunting companions will make you wipe off your knife if you accidentally cut one in order to prevent the poison from contaminating the good mushrooms. They will then, no doubt, regale you with stories of whole villages wiped out by a couple blednye poganki tossed carelessly into a gribnoi sup (mushroom soup). Another well-known poganka is the mukhomor, the red mushroom with white spots that is a standard in Russian fairy-tale illustrations.


Good mushrooming depends very much on the weather. Too little rain will bring out a host of worms and insects to eat the mushrooms from the inside out, and too much will turn them into, well, mush. After the harvest is gathered, you must perebirat' griby (sort the mushrooms), which is one last check for poganki as well as the process of removing the chervivye griby (wormy mushrooms). This process is nearly as much fun as the hunt itself, bringing together generations to argue about whether this or that mushroom is poisonous (it is best to err on the side of caution) and to debate which particular mushroom is the best of the batch.


So, to the fields! There isn't much time left.