Is it the mushrooms or the mystery?



In John Stilgoe's beyond brilliant book about why our world looks the way it does, Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845, Stilgoe begins by examining the medieval European landscape that our American landscape eventually began to diverge from. In small European villages like the one I just visited in Bavaria, Haag an der Amper, the farmers do not generally sit in the middle of their land the way American farmers do. Since time immemorial, they have huddled together for protection, living with their animals and vegetable gardens in small yards within the town, with their fields fanning out from there, and then beyond that the terrifying wilderness represented by the forest.

Stilgoe writes about the fear of this wilderness, with its wolves and wild boars, who would occasionally make a meal out of a farmer making his way home from his fields too late.  Then he adds,

But it was the human evil of the forest and mountains that humans feared too, eldritch hermits who honored goety, rape, and theft and who snatched children for unspeakable purposes. Gypsies with lurchers, crazed magicians, and countless vagabonds, especially those in organized bands, terrorized the whole of rural Europe…. Respectable people bolted their doors and windows at nightfall and prayed for deliverance from the supranatural creatures and human criminals they linked with impenetrable thickets, twilight ravines, and bewilderment.

If you want to see this medieval horror of the forest turned into high art, have a look at Ingmar Bergman's 1960 film The Virgin Spring, which is set in the middle ages and is basically Little Red Riding Hood without the heroic huntsman.

It's not as if this fear of the forest disappeared with the Age of Enlightenment, either.  My Bavarian mother and her sisters were forced to take a road through the forest alone as children.  They were frightened out of their wits by the gypsies living there.

The poor gypsies, of course, were driven out of the forest and out of this world by Hitler, and were soon replaced by American GIs, who could be just as menacing to pretty little girls. Even today, the forests near my Bavarian relatives are both beautiful and unsettling. Some of them are so big that people have been lost for days in them.They are not privately owned like the woods on my country road in Washington County, New York, so you are never sure of whom you'll encounter there. My aunts, having run into some very strange strangers, do not go alone.

Why, you may ask, are ladies in their seventies even interested in stumbling around in a drizzly forest at dawn? 

For the boletes, naturally.  The forests are full of the most delicious wild mushrooms, which my aunts turn into an amazing soup. There are what they call "rooster's comb," a tough little orange fungus that looks like coral, whose toothiness I love in a soup. There are also what they call "brown caps," a slightly slimy bolete whose spongy yellow underside turns blue when pressed. But the real prize is the king bolete or Steinpilz, which has a matte brown head and super-dense and firm white flesh that is just ridiculously aromatic and delicious.

I LOVED mushroom hunting as a kid. I wouldn't get up at 5 in the morning for anything, but I'd get up to hunt mushrooms. I loved the forest, the smell of the soil, the darkness, and the silence. I loved the soup, too. I was never afraid and was perfectly willing to crawl into the blackest, closest spaces under the younger trees. Of course, I would always go with my Uncle Fritz, who with his slicked-back black hair, piercing blue eyes, sharply drawn profile and genial beer belly, was the handsomest and funniest man who ever lived. He was also a policeman, the charismatic sort to whom you'd confess anything, so of course I felt safe.

On my trip to Germany last week, I went mushroom hunting again, with Fritz's son, my cousin Friedi, and his mother-in-law. Like his father, Friedi is handsome and funny, and he also works for the police, but as a detective. He exudes the same air of generosity as his father. It's pretty clear that in any adverse circumstance, he'd do everything to protect the people around him and never once think of himself.

So, I made like the super-successful kid I once was, who found pounds of king boletes in the dark spaces under the youngest trees. I crawled around in this weird silent confinement while the others stuck to the open forest near the path.

But they were soon out of earshot as well as eyesight. I'm an adult now, so the old fairy tales are naturally more terrifying than they were when I was 11 or 13, now that I have some sense of mortality. I was not happy to be alone there. I stood up, brushed off my pants and began shouting after the other two.

I only found one king bolete, but lots of brown caps. Nonetheless, the soup we had for lunch, cooked by Friedi's wife Brigitte, was just as fragrant and satisfying as I'd remembered. Wild mushrooms are so complex. In the same spoonful, they taste like both the uncanny forest and the safety of home.   


  1. Om nom nom. One of my happiest days ever was discovering a patch of chanterelles that grow, for reals, right outside my parents’ kitchen window at their little house in the forest. So crazy delicious.

    Now I wish it was mushroom season!

  2. What a fantastic story, thank you. That attitude towards the forest is so different from what I take as our own. To me the forest is something you escape to, in order to clear your head, leave behind the rat race, commune with nature or find God.

  3. I was really sad to see you include gypsies amongst the hazards of the German forests. Did your mother and her sisters suffer actual harm or were they just frightened by the stories told?
    The Roma are the target of continuing racial discrimination in most of Europe, and are currently being rounded up and deported from France. As you said, Hitler sent thousands of gypsies to the deathcamps but while Jewish people get the headlines there, the Roma are conveniently forgotten. In many of the European and East European countries where there are deep-rooted Roma communities they have been consistantly discriminated against, deprived of access to education, healthcare and the normal rights of other citizens of the country.
    My memories of gypsies in the UK are that they lived in their own communities of travelling caravans/campers and ponies making a marginal living by recyling goods, patching pans, selling wild veggies and clothes pegs, and sometimes telling fortunes!

  4. Rainymountain, this tongue-lashing seems uncalled for.

    I did not “include gypsies among the hazards of the forest.”

    I wrote about the fear of the forest, whether rational or not.

    My mother told me that the gypsies that she ran into in the forest went of their way to frighten her and her sisters.

    I also quoted distinguished historian John Stilgoe, who said that for centuries, European farmers were scared of the gypsies in the woods and their dogs.

    Is anybody surprised at this fear? In every culture, bourgeois types are always terrified of people who live on the margins.

    I also made it perfectly plain that gypsies were victims of genocide during World War II.

  5. Taking a mushroom course in the US we learned that boletes that turned blue were poisonous. It may be a different variety that grows here or there may be a method to detoxify them. Always be certain to know what you have. As the instructor said “there are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.”

  6. Vicky, there are no boletes that cause anything worse than a stomach-ache.

    This family is easy to identify by the spongy underbottoms.

    So, they are a safe bet.

    The German brown caps, which are delicious, bruise blue on their yellow undersides. While I’ve found king boletes on my country road in the US, I’ve never found brown caps here.

  7. Fascinating!

    I’ve always wondered about the American vs. European placement of houses and farm land. Do you know why it was different in the States? Guns?

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  9. Terrific post!

    In our world of residential lawns in Toronto, mushrooms regarded as a nuisance, prompting us to even write a blog on how they appear and how to get rid of them

    But your post reminded me of my childhood endeavors in Russia, as we frequented the forest near our Cottage (Dachya) in search of the most delicious mushrooms.

    “Lisichki” were my favourite… Here’s a pic

  10. Rainymountain (and anyone else interested): You may be interested in the book “Hastened to the Grave” by Jack Olsen. A true tale about the Roma in America.

  11. Michele,your post takes me back. My father brought home “Pfifferlinge” from the forest near our home. The saffron colored,buttery tasting mushrooms were sauteed in a pan and served for lunch.And I too was terrified of having to walk (run) alone through the forest.Maybe it was because the woods were so much denser and therefore darker than the forests I have seen here.And then,of course,there were the stories of the Brothers Grimm,they were our fairy tales.

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