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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Bumper Year for Mushrooms and Pickers

MTFall mushroom picking is a centuries-old tradition enjoyed by Russians of all ages.
Early Saturday morning a line of cars snaked along the Kaluga highway, a few dozen kilometers south of Moscow. Every now and then one pulled over, and mysterious figures swathed in country clothing, rubber boots and caps, armed with baskets and knives, emerged briefly, then plunged into the woods.

These were not illicit hunters but Muscovites engrossed in a favorite pastime -- mushroom picking. This year's warm, rainy summer has yielded an unprecedented mushroom crop for fungi- and adventure-hungry Russians. As forests flood with fleshy mushrooms, city dwellers disappear on weekends into the woods in search of a delicious meal.

And come late September and early October, Muscovites are already planning their final mushroom hunts of the year, as the colder fall weather closes in.

History teacher Yulia Mishurovskaya, 23, had planned to spend a quiet summer taking care of her 9-month-old daughter, Nastya, at the family dacha 75 kilometers east of Moscow. But this year's bountiful fungi crop turned the new mom into a daring mushroom hunter. "This year brought an unbelievable harvest," she said. "There were so many mushrooms that even if you were lazy, you would still go mushroom-picking. I would go to the forest every day -- either when my baby daughter was sleeping, or I would even take her with me in a baby carriage."

Mishurovskaya said she collected more than 300 mushrooms a day, bringing home three or four 5-liter buckets bursting with fungi. "And what do you imagine we did with all those mushrooms? We ate them for breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Denis Titov, 30, another mushroom fan, had a similar experience. "It's crazy how many mushrooms there are this year," he said. "One mushroom I found was so big, it was the size of my 3-year-old niece's head."

But Titov warned that by early October: "You can still find mushrooms in the forest, but you have to hurry up before it gets cold."

Mishurovskaya first stews the fungi, then fries them with oil, sour cream and onions. "They were good, that's for sure, but because there were so many this summer, we've had several cases of overeating," she said, laughing.

Mushroom picking is surrounded by all sorts of myths and legends. According to Mishurovskaya, it's believed a poor year for mushrooms follows a bountiful crop the previous year. "They also say that if you look at a mushroom, it will stop growing," she said.

Experienced mushroom pickers also have their special tips. "When you come to the forest, you must absolutely pick the very first mushroom you see, even if it doesn't look appealing to you. Otherwise you won't have a good hunt," said Yeva Kiselyova, 28. "And if don't run into any mushrooms, you must trick them. Pretend you came to collect nuts, then they will start throwing themselves under your feet."

The mushroom picker's most prized trophy is the bely grib, or white mushroom. Although it has a brown cap, the mushroom is dazzling white on the inside. Other favorites are the podosinovik, with its bright orange cap -- literally a mushroom growing under the aspen tree -- and podberyozovik, found under the birch tree.

But collecting fungi is also a tricky business of distinguishing edible mushrooms from their appealing, but inedible, counterparts. This year health officials recorded more than 450 cases of mushroom poisoning, 34 of which were lethal. Most frequently amateur fungi-pickers mistake the poisonous death cap, which causes liver damage, for the edible syroyezhka of the Russula family, said Alla Ryk, a senior researcher at the Sklifosovsky Research Institute who has authored a book on mushroom poisoning.

Although they may look alike -- a thin white stalk topped with a gray cap -- what distinguishes the death cap from the edible syroyezhka is the tiny skirt surrounding the stalk. According to Ryk, when the death cap is still small, the skirt may not have blossomed yet, so such mushrooms should be collected with great care and preferably together with an experienced picker.

"To avoid poisoning, I never pick a mushroom unless I am 200 percent sure it is edible," Mishurovskaya said.