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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: Mushrooms Say Trouble On Horizon




Since I have been working as a ghostwriter for a group of retired KGB agents, I now get my intelligence from the very best sources. Last week I received a phone call from Oleg Brykin, who used to steal U.S. military secrets while masquerading as a translator at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and this is what he said:


"There are a record number of mushrooms in the woods around Moscow this summer." Whether because he had inside information or because he shares the general Russian delight in doom mongering, he added: "It's a bad sign. A glut of mushrooms means famine and war."


It is certainly true, as old people will tell you, that there were a lot of mushrooms in the forests the summer before the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. But I am not jumping to conclusions. To invert a common Russian saying, there are as many mushrooms in the woods after rain as there are GAI officers on the roads. And it has been a particularly humid summer, ideal weather for fungi.


Strange as it may seem, in all my 10 years in Russia, I have never practiced the national sport of mushroom hunting. Russians are crazy about it. One year, I even saw a woman rooting around for mushrooms on a traffic island in the middle of the Garden Ring Road, a very bad idea as the fungi would have been full of lead.


Although trapped in the city without a functioning car, I was not about to follow her desperate example. But when my old friend Zina, a geologist, suggested we go by metro and bus just over the city limit to look for mushrooms, I leaped at the chance.


If you are an ignorant foreigner like me, capable of wasting $20 in a supermarket on bottled champignons that taste like toilet paper but unable to distinguish a "little fox" from an "under the birch," you had better stick close to an experienced Russian. I knew I was in safe hands with Zina, who found a canal towpath bordered by a birch wood that she said was promising terrain for the "white" mushrooms that go into soup.


The glimmering birch woods, for which Russians understandably suffer nostalgia when they go abroad, were full of wild raspberries. A whole row of trees was down, felled by the storm that hit these parts in June. The trunks lay charred like matches after being struck by lightening.


Under the trees were carpets of mukhomor or poisonous toadstools, not the red spotted sort on which gnomes sit in fairy tales, but the brown speckled "tiger" variety. "They could be deadly for children or make an adult very sick," warned Zina, "but there are some Russians who know how to use them for medicinal purposes."Zina was excited because wherever toadstools pop up, nutritious "whites," as full of protein as meat, are found close by. "They look similar but the 'whites' give off good energy," she said. I was going to have to trust her.


As it turned out, we only found one large "white" because it was late and hoards of grannies, who depend on mushrooms in winter, had already been through the woods like vacuum cleaners. But at the metro station on the way home, we bought more mushrooms, including lisichki (little foxes or chanterelles) that Zina fried.


Oleg had said mushrooms portend disaster. I must admit I was a bit concerned lest they were mutants, not as harmless as they should be. But days after eating them, I am still alive, war has not broken out and we have not been taken over by aliens.