One regret I have about living in Poland is that my Polish wife doesn’t like mushroom-picking and has never taken me on a trip to the forest with a basket. One of the rites of passage for foreigners into Polish culture is the first time they are invited to go mushroom-picking. My wife has failed to give me this basic initiation …and education.
As far as mushrooms are concerned, my mental basket is empty.
In the UK we don’t have many forests left. That’s why, we don’t have much affection for mushrooms despite the wet climate. To us, mushrooms are small, white buttons that you buy in plastic-wrapped packs in Tesco. They are grown in darkened warehouses and don’t have any taste. Indeed, the only people who actually go mushroom-picking in the UK are desperate students looking for a psychedelic experience.
Consequently, English speakers only use one word for the fungi that grows in the woods – mushroom. If you want to define them more precisely, then we borrow from French – chanterelle, champingon etc.
In Poland, however, mushrooms are a passion and their appearance marks a time of the year. Not only are they a delicious food, but they are a hobby, a source of income and an activity that unites the whole family. The entire population can get involved – you just need to get up early enough and know where to look.
While English speakers only use one generic expression, Polish has the generic name grzyby, as well as a different name for each type of mushroom – borowik/prawdziwek, rydz, kurka, kania, pieczarka, maślak, gąska, koźlarz, podgrzybek, zajączek. And all Poles know the difference between a kurka and a gąska from 100 metres away through a dark, damp forest.
In English, we do have a specific word for the poisonous mushroom known in Polish as muchomor. It’s called a toadstool, i.e. a chair that a toad can sit on. This makes it sound quite harmless… even cute. At least in Polish, they give cute names to edible mushrooms – kurka (little chicken), gąska (little goose) and zajączek (little hare), while giving aggressive names to poisonous mushrooms – szatan (satan), and muchomor (fly-killer). Now that’s a clear message!
Whenever I ask Poles how they acquired this skill, the answer is pretty much the same:
Me: How did you learn all this?
Pole: When I was a child my grandma (or grandpa) took me to the woods to pick mushrooms. Didn’t your grandma take you?
Pole: Why not?
Me: Well, we don’t have forests. We cut down all the trees centuries ago to build ships.
Pole: That’s a shame.
Me: Yes, we gained an empire, but we lost the opportunity to go mushroom-picking.
Pole: There must be some forests left.
Me: A few. But, in any case, my grandma wouldn’t know the difference between a mushroom and toadstool. If she had taken me mushroom-picking as a child, then I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you now.
I worry about the consequences of not learning this crucial Polish skill. I’ve tried to warn my wife – what if there’s another war and we have to live wild in the forest? Not knowing the difference between a szatan and a prawdziwek, I will probably be poisoned before the first shot is fired!
So far my arguments haven’t convinced her… I’m still hunting for mushrooms in Tesco.