As summer draws to a conclusion, it’s time to think about the harvest. In British parks (and even by the roadside), you’ll spot people with old plastic ice cream tubs furtively looking for juicy, sweet blackberries, but in Russia, one crop’s on everyone’s minds – mushrooms!
Mushroom picking is as much a part of Russian culture as donning snow boots and quaffing vodka. It’s an activity practised from childhood, meaning that every Russian worth his or her salt knows the good from the bad – and of course the simply ugly. Before the weather turns, it’s a great excuse to get out into the countryside and forage for the forest’s finest crop. Tucked out of sight in the shadiest dell, hidden by ferns and fallen logs, finding edible fungi isn’t always easy, but the reward is a tasty and nutritious ingredient that will enhance any dish.
If you’re a novice picker, then it’s best to take someone with you on your hunt. Each distinct type has a nickname: chanterelles are known as little foxes on account of their orange colouring, for instance, while porcini are often called the Tsar’s mushrooms.
Although many mushrooms are harmless, a few can be harmful if consumed. Some say that a poisonous mushroom will turn an onion, garlic or egg white to a shade of blue-black. Unfortunately, that’s just an old wives’ tale so make sure you know exactly which type you’re picking before you eat them. Cut them cleanly with a sharp knife to harvest them and cook them as fresh as possible to get the very best result.
Many popular Russian recipes use mushrooms as the star of the dish. A staple of any Russian dining table will be a tureen of thick mushroom soup. Potatoes are used to thicken the liquid and carrots, celery and onion are often used to develop the rich flavours. Mushroom julienne is a classic: thinly sliced mushrooms combined with cream, cheese and sour cream and then grilled to brown the top. They’re also used as an accompaniment to classics like cabbage rolls, either as a side dish or as a delicious sauce with a base of beef broth. During Lent, some people choose to use mushrooms as a replacement for meat. They make a great filling for pelmeni (dumplings) and a delicious topping for blinis. Frying them in salted butter or boiling them in a tasty stock will bring out the flavour.
We hope our suggestions have you salivating! How are you going to serve yours?