Today, a rare glimpse into Polish literary and fungal national traditions.
A badly google-translated sign found at the Chobham Common car park last weekend inspired me to delve deeply into a widespread Polish custom of mushroom picking. Every Pole worthy of their name is an expert mushroom picker. It’s one of those habits, like playing with live carp in the bath the week before Christmas, and painting elaborate patterns on boiled eggs for Easter, that all Polish children carry in their genes. By the age of ten, you confuse your boletus, and your chanterelles with your toadstool at your peril. Quite literally. Several hundred people are reported to suffer from varied degree of mushroom related food poisoning every year. Fatalities are rare, but they do still occur.
A highly venerated 19th century Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, exalted the joys of mushroom-picking in his epic oeuvre, Pan Tadeusz, as long ago as 1834. And since this masterpiece of rhyme and rhythm was (still is?) compulsory reading for all Polish secondary school students for about a century, the mushroom picking, alongside many other Polish customs mentioned in the book got elevated to an almost patriotic deed and national duty. Just a little more background here, the plot of Pan Tadeusz is set in 1811-1812, when Poland did not exist as an independent country, and Polish patriots put great hopes in Napoleon’s defeat of Russia, the common enemy. Everything in the book, written when Poland was still long way from regaining independence, was seen as an essence of Polishness.
Mushroom picking and bigos making received celebrated status, something which both these activities still enjoy today. Bigos, since I am sure you are now dying to know, continues to be one of Poland’s flagship dishes. It is made of sauerkraut mixed with fresh white cabbage, chunks of meat, sausage, and yes, dried wild mushrooms.
When Poland joined the EU in 2004, hundreds of thousands of Poles descended on unsuspecting sleepy English countryside. Old habits die hard and so soon enough the new arrivals were seen traipsing the woodlands and the commons of their new host country, with baskets and other mushroom picking paraphernalia. Mushroom picking is not a hugely popular pastime in England. An average Englishman is usually able to distinguish between button mushrooms and flat cap mushrooms, and they know that the best place to find them is between the peppers and the onions in their local Sainsbury’s vegetable aisle.
As the picture above clearly shows, the Polish mushroom picking custom has been duly noted by local authorities in the UK. Surrey Heath Council awarded the Polish language version of their multilingual mushroom picking ban the top spot, ahead of such other mushroom-picking giants as the Chinese, the Italian and the French.
I, for one, find this fascinating.
* ‘Grzybów było w bród…’, Pan Tadeusz, Book III