By Konstantin Gridnevskiy
Beginning in late August, Polish forests experience an influx of visitors specializing in the so-called ‘silent hunt’, which requires a lot of patience, keen eyesight and is not without its dangers. Armed with razor-sharp knives, and in some cases just bare-handed, these hunters comb the forests searching for their elusive prey. The prey, though seemingly benign, can sometimes turn deadly, which is why, besides the steel and muscle, the hunters have to possess good knowledge, ever-present sense of danger and a keen eye for detail. The silent hunt we are talking about is, of course, the mushroom picking.
Coming from the families with ancient traditions of the silent hunt, we were especially happy to try our own hand (and, in this case, our eyes) at locating and bagging the prey, when we visited one of the largest forest areas in the West of Poland, the place called Puszcza Notecka (which in English means Notecka forest). It was a beautiful October Sunday: the sun was shining, the temperature was around 20 degrees Celsius, the autumn forest was full of red, yellow and green, some occasional clouds floated over the sky taking their rain somewhere else… in other words just a perfect day for picking mushrooms.
Being around 11 a.m. when we stepped off our train from Poznan (after one and a half-hour ride), there were no other silent hunters in sight and we had the whole forest for ourselves. Well, at least that what we thought at first.
As it turned out, our main competitors were there all along: these were the slugs and other creepy-crawlies from Forest Fungal Food Lovers Association (aka FFFLA), who were inconspicuously present all around us. Thus, very often, the mushrooms that appeared perfectly fine on the outside, upon closer examination, had a thriving representation of the FFFLA members.
Nevertheless, we still managed to tackle down and apprehend enough healthy specimens – ideal for a home-made mushroom soup. In some cases, we even shared the mushrooms with our competitors: we took the caps, whereas they could keep the stems (otherwise known stipes).
hunted Xerocomus – in Russia, these mushrooms are known as Moss mushrooms, which clearly indicates where you can mostly find them
Basic rules for novices to the arcane art of the silent hunt
1) For beginners it is always advisable to look under the cap – a lot of mushroom with gills are inedible or even poisonous and deadly, whereas the mushrooms with tubes are mostly (but NOT all) suitable for a Homo sapiens meal. In Russia, we say: “You can eat all mushrooms, but some only once”. To make sure that it is not your last one, the rule of the thumb is: if you are not certain, do not eat it.
2) For the reasons of sustainability, remove the mushrooms carefully from the ground (in this case a knife can come in handy) leave the roots in the soil. We, ourselves, always tried to cut the stipe low so that we could get as much of the fruiting body (i.e. the mushroom itself) as possible, and make sure that the mycelium (i.e. the roots) stayed in the ground so that both silent hunters and various FFFLA members could enjoy new mushrooms next year.
In addition to the ingredients for fine dining, the autumn forest can share its other treasures with an eager visitor. Thus, it is possible to sample some late berries or to be amazed by the shapes and colours of various plant and fungi species. Indeed, for a keen observer, the autumn forest is a great place to practice macro photography, because the lower to the ground you get, the more intense and beautiful the colours become.
Amanita muscaria – the short-stemmed cauliflower fungus, smells like bleach (under protection). Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly amanita, is one of the most iconic poisonous mushrooms, though not the most toxic.
The landscape of Puszcza Notecka is dotted with sand dunes that form a labyrinth of valleys and hills. These dunes are mostly covered with pines (92% of the forest’s total area of 1,350 km2), which were planted during the interwar period instead of broadleaf trees that were being destroyed by insect pests.
Another attraction of the forest is the ever-present elevated box blinds, wooden constructions up to 10 meters high used by forest guards for observation and by members of legal hunting associations for not-so-silent hunting on boars, roe and red deer.
It is reported that in Poland there are between five and seven hundred wolves, which are under the strict protection of the government. Puszcza Notecka is also the place where wolves have been spotted a number of times, however, this has been extremely rare and the chance of seeing one of them will not exceed 0.1% in the most optimistic estimates.
Going off the road in the forest is rather easy and one should not be afraid to get lost as the main paths are well marked on trees and the forest is divided into numbered quadrants. These numbers can be found on well-visible stone polls and correspond with the numbers indicated on most of the maps. If you still inexplicably managed to get lost, or you are running out of time and want to take a shortcut to get out from the forest, you should simply follow the power lines, which run between the villages located on the outskirts of the forest. This may not be the most spectacular path, but following the lines will definitely lead to the main road… sooner or later.
Although it is very easy to reach Puszcza Notecka from Poznań by car, we decided to rely on the local railway, as we didn’t want to make a long loop walk back. Our 20 km Tour De Forest eventually took us the whole day. The last part of the trail we completed in darkness (long live Pezel Nao!) and reached the next train station around 8 p.m. Surprisingly, we were not the only late-Sunday passengers, as we had expected.
The train was packed with students heading to Poznań, which for us meant more time on our feet after an already long day of mushroom hunting. The students’ suitcases, which took most of the space in the aisles, were probably packed with jars full of processed meat and jams, provided by their loving mums for the whole week of studying in the “big city”. However, what they didn’t have were the best and freshest mushrooms in all of Europe, hidden delicately away in the depths of our rucksacks.
As the imaginary smell of the mushroom soup filled the noisy train compartment on the ride back home, we smiled to each other from behind the piles of luggage, enjoying the memories of the silent hunt.