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Slovenia is (still) a paradise for mushroom-pickers

For such a small country, Slovenia is lucky to have three different climates – the Alpine, Mediterranean and Pannonian – for they give rise to an extremely wide variety of different mushrooms. And indeed, mushroom-picking has probably been the country’s most widespread recreational activity over the past few decades. For many people there is no healthier or more pleasant activity than an early morning walk through the freshness of forest and glade, regardless of whether one spots a mushroom or not.

Photo: Darinka Mladenovič

Many forests, particularly those on the Pokljuka plateau, are so full of people in the autumn months that some joke that the pickers sometimes outnumber the mushrooms. But there are still many other areas containing mushrooms in abundance, particularly in Dolenjska, Notranjska and in the woods of Goričko in Prekmurje. The mushroom season in Slovenia lasts from the end of March, when pickers go mad for Yellow Morels (Morchella esculenta), which are usually fairly few in number, to the colder autumn months, when the frost puts paid to the last of the Dingy Agarics (Tricholoma portentosum). Some mushrooms appear, although not every year, in July and August, and most in September and November (only, of course, if the weather conditions favour their growth). Porcini mushrooms (Boletus edulis), for example, were still growing last December, the first few days of which were unusually warm.

Frequent gatherings of mushroom-pickers and numerous mushroom exhibitions

Every year gatherings take place in various places around the country organised by mushroom societies, under the umbrella of a general association. Visitors to these events are able to see the many types of mushrooms picked in Slovenia, get to know them a bit better, talk about them, exchange experiences and, moreover, try dishes prepared with mushrooms. Mushroom exhibitions also take place every year as part of a series of events called Narava-zdravje, or ‘nature and health’. However, Slovenia does have a fairly strict regulation on the picking, sale and protection of some 70 varieties of wild mushroom.

However, in the last 30 years, many pickers have become concerned about the excessive bear population, and more particularly by the presence of infected ticks, responsible for tick-borne encephalitis, a serious disease for which there is a vaccine, and the slightly milder Borelliosis, for which a vaccine has not yet been developed. Infected ticks are, unfortunately, expanding rapidly to areas of forest and shrubland in which they were previously not present. This partly prevents the intensive gathering of mushrooms – and of course spoils for the fun for many pickers.

Where are these little paths?

So goes the Slovenian national song. These paths are disappearing because Man is increasingly and more intensively encroaching on forests and glades. Here is an example: even up until a few years ago, there was a paradise for mushroom enthusiasts in an area south of Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. Everything grew there, and alongside one particular thicket one could pick up to 30 porcini mushrooms. At four spots one could find that most highly prized specimen, the Caesar’s Mushroom or Amanita caesarea. Today that area has been completely built on.

But despite such examples of Man’s penetration into the natural world, Slovenia can still boast such an array of the widest variety of mushrooms and fungi that there is enough left over for export, mostly to Italy. More than 10 tons of fresh mushrooms are sold at Ljubljana market every year; these are, of course, mostly porcini, chanterelles (Cantharellus), Honey Fungi (Armillariella), Gypsy Mushrooms (Rozites caperata), Parasol Mushrooms (Macrolepiote), Dingy Agarics (Tricholoma portentosum) and Saffron Milk Caps (Lactarius deliciosus) with their distinctive red ‘milk’. Years ago, sales at the market were overseen by mushroom experts to prevent poisoning or, at the very least, digestive problems.

Mushrooms as food, but only as an accompaniment

In Slovenia, which can, as we say, truly boast of a large diversity of mushrooms, people know that mushrooms contain a large amount of water and very few calories. And they are aware that they differ from meat by their exceptional aromaticness. So, from both aspects, it leave even the best vegetable behind in its wake. Those who know a bit more about the ingredients of mushrooms point out that they also have a good deal of fibre, vitamins, minerals, unsaturated fatty acids and other health-giving substances. That said, we must treat them with great care. While it is true that the majority of mushrooms found in Slovenia are edible, there are still a little over 30 varieties that are poisonous – and around a third of these carry a risk of death if consumed. But if pickers are familiar with only a few varieties, it too often occurs that others simply trample on and kick them, which does a great disservice to the beauty of nature. Or else some who don’t possess the requisite knowledge might cook up a dish containing harmful or even highly poisonous mushrooms, such as one of the thousands of varieties of gilled mushroom, alongside the edible porcinis, chanterelles, large Parasol Mushrooms and red-Cap Boletus mushrooms (Leccinum aurantiacum) that almost everyone is familiar with. These gilled varieties include the most poisonous toadstools, such as the Fool’s Mushroom and Destroying Angel (Amanita verna and Amanita virosa), the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) and the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), which is otherwise one of the forest’s most beautiful ornaments. It also happens that someone picks and is subsequently poisoned by a mushroom that has not yet fully grown, because they do not recognise the variety to which it belongs. Or else they suffer digestive problems because they have consumed an old or half-rotten mushroom.

The development of mycology from Clusius to today

Mycology in the Slovenian lands began developing when the greatest botanist of the 16th century, the Dutchman Carolus Clusius, arrived in Vienna at the invitation of Habsburg Emperor Maximilian II and began to make a study of the mushrooms found in the lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; in Slovenia, he paid particular attention to those found in the northeast. His book Fungorum in Panoniis observatorum brevis historia, written in Latin, which more or less signalled the start of the scientific study of mushrooms, describes around 120 varieties of ‘higher fungi’. Slovenian writings on mushrooms appeared soon after this. At first they were fairly basic and clumsy, but they were nevertheless important because certain fungi were given the names that had been given them by ordinary people in their own language. At the end of the 18th century, a physician from Idrija, A. Scopoli, wrote two books describing 190 varieties of fungi found on Slovenian territory, also giving several of them the names familiar to the native population. The study of fungi was continued in Slovenia by Simon Robič and W. Voss, followed later by Fran Dolšak; recent decades have seen more detailed and scientific work on mushrooms published by many other writers. The latest books come furnished with even better and more detailed colour photographs. But be careful – if you wish to recognise a particular mushroom properly, you cannot rely simply on a photograph. It is much better to be shown what’s what by an expert, who is able to tell you all its most important characteristics.

Text by Juš Turk, Sinfo, October 2009