Mushroom hunting is a treasured Polish pastime, a peaceful way to spend time in the wilderness while collecting treats for the dinner table. Everyone has their favorite spot, some kept a closely guarded secret even from friends and family. In much of Poland, mushroom excursions double as an opportunity to encounter relics of the country's turbulent past.
I had the opportunity to participate with my wife's family in northeastern Poland, tromping through the woods in Biebrzański National Park searching for chanterelles, boletus, and other delicacies. We learned the tricks of the trade: where to look for the best odds of success, how to avoid poisonous varieties, and the best ways to prepare your finds for dinner.
Along the way our hunt revealed some of the relentless atrocities that scarred Poland throughout the 20th century. Right from the start, as we entered the sandy pine forests in the park, we passed a trench running diagonally through the woods, a remnant of the battle lines in World War I. Today treasure hunters with metal detectors still uncover ammunition and other artifacts of the war. As we hunted through the woods we skirted several other trenches, dug by men on a much grimmer mission than our own.
We browsed among the trees in search of maślaki, a brown capped mushroom also known as slippery jack. It proved reluctant to be discovered, or perhaps the area had already been picked clean. I found some mushrooms with brown caps and gills underneath that looked like good prospects, but they were deemed unworthy—we needed ones with gummy undersides. Then we came across one that appeared to fit the description, but a tentative lick soon proved it inedible, as it left a tingling, numbing sensation on the tongue announcing its danger.
We were also on the lookout for chanterelles, known as kurka in Poland. Chanterelles are one of the most common species and easiest to find and identify. They often grow from moss patches on the forest floor, with a distinctive orange cap standing out among the green. Where you find one chanterelle, you are likely to find a cluster, the others hiding under the thick moss nearby. Because of their bright color and unique shape, chanterelles are straightforward to identify for even the most amateur mycologists. They are great in an omelet or soup, and provide a nice source of potassium, iron and vitamin D. Chanterelles and other mushrooms are also used to stuff galumpkis, as a meat accompaniment or on their own as a side.
While we hunted we kept an eye out for kolpak, a.k.a. gypsy mushrooms, and prawdziwek, or boletus, which are a favorite pierogi filler. Boletus are the target of the famous mushroom hunt in the epic Polish poem "Pan Tadeusz"—"After slender 'boletus' the young ladies throng / Which is famed as the colonel of mushrooms in song"—though it's debatable if that particular reference is actually about mushrooms.
As it turned out, I was by far the worst mushroom hunter, collecting a paltry batch of chanterelles in comparison to the bounty gathered by more experienced hunters. What I lacked in mushrooms, however, I made up for in education.
Nearby, we came across crumbling concrete structures, defense bunkers built by Russians during the World War I. The remnants were left cracked and shattered, with rebar sticking out at odd angles, after they were blown up during Polish military training decades after their construction. Inside was a mess of rubble and beer bottles. You could still identify sniper portals, tapered on the outside to prevent bullets from ricocheting in.
As we drove to another part of the countryside, we stopped at more bunkers, these built by the Germans during World War II after they broke their non-aggression pact with the Soviets in 1941 and advanced across the continent toward Russia. Currently the bunkers defend a large hay field. These were still in relatively good shape, with gunsights and ventilation shafts mostly intact. In one corner there was a hole that dropped down to a storage area and reportedly to tunnels leading to other bunkers set strategically on nearby hilltops, always within sight of at least one other. Out in front was a trench to deter tanks.
We made one final stop, this one at a stone memorial topped with a menorah and the Star of David. The monument commemorated the victims of the Wąsosz pogrom, during which 250 Jews were brutally murdered on July 5, 1941. According to the only surviving eyewitness account, Polish villagers under the encouragement of Nazi soldiers went door-to-door executing their Jewish neighbors. Some historians dispute whether Poles or Germans actually carried out the pogrom, but the result was the same either way. The memorial marks the mass grave where the bodies were buried.
There were similar massacres in other villages in the area, hundreds of Jewish men, women, and children killed in the midst of the larger bloodbath sweeping Europe. In total, about six million Polish people died in World War II, roughly half of them Jews and half ethnic Poles and other groups.
On the way back to the car, contemplating the depths of human capacity for carnage and cruelty, a cousin spotted a clutch of kolpak mushrooms hidden in the tall grass—a parting gift from the land. Our placid day of foraging was a reflection of the unprecedented peace and prosperity that Poland enjoys today, but the very landscape we walked was indelibly marked with reminders of the not-so-distant past.