Went for a walk in the woods this weekend.
I went with our neighbor Franz. Franz is native to the region, so he's a trove of information. This patch of woods, it used to be meadow! Here's the spring where the wild boar come to wallow. These mushrooms, they are sehr giftig, very much poison.
Right. About the mushrooms.
It's mushroom season here in central Germany. They're everywhere. There are at least four different kinds growing just in our back yard. They appear out of nowhere, sometimes singly and sometimes in clumps or fairy rings. The woods... the woods were just full of them.
Understand that I'm basically an urban, suburban kind of guy. I spent some time in small-town Maine as a kid, but it didn't really take. My psychological center of gravity is somewhere between the upper East Side of Manhattan and Fairfield County, Connecticut. Food comes from supermarkets, wrapped in plastic. Food safety consists of checking the sell-by date.
Eating fresh-picked mushrooms -- I mean, picked from the dirt, by non-experts -- creeps me out. I mean, it seriously creeps me way the hell out. Mushrooms can kill you in about eighteen different ways, all of them horrible. There are mushroom toxins that cause violent convulsions, followed by death. There are mushroom toxins that cause massive internal bleeding, followed by death. There are mushroom toxins where you're totally fine for 24 hours, and then the toxin dissolves your liver into slime. Followed by, you guessed it, death.
Last week the parents-in-law brought a basket of fresh-picked mushrooms. These were Steinpilz (SHTINE - pilts), aka Boletis Edulis, a large plump mushroom that looks like a bun. Mushroom-eaters call them porcini and will pay good money for them.
Claudia sauteed them with some venison and, sure, they were tasty. Very tasty. Delicious, even. Which made the whole thing doubly weird, because half my brain was all "This is very tasty!" and the other half was all "You're gonna die, you're gonna die, you're gonna die."
Serious mycovores are laughing at me now, because -- ha ha! -- as everyone knows, Boletis Edulis is about as dangerous as flat soda. See, there's nothing that looks very much like it. (Well, except for its cousin, Boletis Satanas. "Violent pain in stomach, and a profuse diarrhea of blood and the mucous lining of the intestines". But as everyone knows, Boletis Satanas is very rare, and also has a funny smell.) All across Europe, millions of people eat fresh-picked porcini every year, and hardly any of them die. Being scared of porcini is like being scared that a meteorite is going to hit you, right now. It's pathetic.
So I'm trying -- really trying -- to run a manual override of my brain here. Conscious logical higher brain, rally to me! Pathetic cowardly hindbrain, back! Back!
The walk in the woods with Franz did not help.
"These are called Knollenblaetterpilz. They look just like champignons, which are delicious. However, they are unfortunately very much poison."
"Uhh... how much is very much?"
"Oh, of course you die."
"So of course you don't collect the, the other guys. The champignons."
"Well," Franz said, "I would not eat champignons that anyone else collected. I of course can tell them apart. If you dig around the bottom -- " and here he knelt down and did just that "-- you will see that the Knollenblaetterpilz has a little knolle, a how do you say?"
"Yes, so. A lump here. And also, it has little Blaetter, like leaves, under the cap. Champignons do not have this. So if you look carefully it is perfectly safe."
Right. Knollenblaetterpilz, aka:
Amanita phalloides commonly known as the death cap, is a poisonous basidiomycete fungus... Unfortunately and by coincidence, these toxic mushrooms resemble several edible species commonly consumed by humans, increasing the risk of accidental poisoning. A. phalloides is one of the most poisonous of all known toadstools... it is estimated that 30 grams (1 oz), or half a cap, of this mushroom is enough to kill a human... Furthermore, the toxicity is not reduced by cooking, freezing, or drying.
They kill a dozen or so people a year here in Europe. On the plus side, survivors report that they taste really nice.
Anyway. Here are some other things I learned from that walk in the woods:
-- The Fly Agaric mushroom, Amanita Muscaria, is really common around here. We saw several large, juicy-looking specimens. Franz said it's not dangerous because (1) it's really easy to spot, because it has such a distinctive appearance, and (2) while it will make you pretty sick, it "probably" won't kill you. During the war years, hungry people collected them in the woods, soaked them in milk (which, apparently, neutralizes the poison) and ate them.
The local version isn't hallucinogenic. The famous ones in Siberia may be a different subspecies, or there may just be some subtle difference in soil or climate that makes them produce a different mix of chemicals.
-- You have to catch porcini at just the right time. Too soon and they're small and not... is ripe the right word for mushrooms? Edible, but not really tasty yet. Too late and the deer will start eating them (and how the hell do deer know which mushrooms are edible? Hey?) and also they'll fill up with maggots. Apparently there's some fast-breeding fly that loves to lay eggs on B. Edulis. Franz cut some stems and they were full of little holes.
-- There are wood auctions every spring. I mean, auctions of cut wood, for use as firewood. We came across a pile of this wood and Franz was pleased. "This is wood that is, how do you say, lost?"
"When someone forgets about a thing?"
"Yes! It is abandoned. You must take it from the forest by a certain date and if you do not, it is abandoned."
"So, we could come up here and take it?"
"Oh, yes." Clearly Franz was giving this serious thought.
I said if he wanted to, I would help. If anything comes of this, I'll keep you all posted.
-- Part of the trail was an old road. A very old road: Franz said it had been the main road between Fladungen and Ostheim back in medieval times. "Why did they put the road up here in the hills?" "Because the lower ground was too wet and muddy." Could be. The local river, the Streu, is not much more than a creek these days, but you can just look around and see that it's running through a flood plain a couple of kilometers wide. Tamed by 19th century hydrological engineers? I don't know, but it would be interesting to find out.
A bit later we found a skull. Animal, maybe 20 cm (8 inches) long. Franz couldn't identify it, but later that day I showed it to my father-in-law. "Deer," he said without hesitation, "female, young, maybe half a year." Hans is a hunter.
When I could tear my mind away from mortality, it was actually a really nice walk. The woods above Fladungen are a mixture of pine, birch and beech. I think there's a succession thing going -- the pines take over first, then after fifty years or so the hardwoods start moving in. The leaves were turning, not dramatic New England-style colors but pleasantly muted yellows and browns. There were beechnut shells everywhere. Magpies squawked and chattered, and a woodpecker gave an alarm call. The woods smelled... well, like woods in autumn. Leaf mold and a little bit of pine needle. It was nice.
It's an ongoing process of adjustment, yes.