Friday, December 31, 2010

The Poisonous Mushroom Was Delicious

Like my wife, I first experienced mushrooms as little round, rubbery things that came in cans. Not surprisingly, neither one of us liked them very much, but she changed her mind about them after friends introduced her to the joys of hunting morels in the woods of Iowa. As I stumbled through childhood, I also came across mushrooms growing in the woods: appearing in all different shapes and sizes and colors, they were intriguing as hell, but you would never think of eating them. After all, mushrooms that you ate came in cans from the grocery store: they might taste bad and their horrible texture might make your skin crawl, but they wouldn’t really hurt you. The things that grew in the yard or in the woods or on trees were toadstools and they would kill you deader than a doornail. Everybody knew that.

As I grew up, mushrooms got a lot better, partly due to my maturing taste buds I suppose, but also because they began to appear in supermarkets un-canned. And they began to appear in different shapes and sizes, a little like what you would see in the woods, only not nearly as interesting. Or as colorful: no bright oranges with white polka dots or anything like that. Those were still toadstools, would still kill you deader than a doornail, and everybody still knew that.

Some years later, deeply immersed in adulthood and professional responsibilities, a Polish colleague invited me to dinner at his house. He was a charming host and he and his wife had prepared a delicious dinner that included saut̩ed mushrooms. I commented on how good everything was Рespecially the mushrooms Рand his wife thanked me for the compliment but assured me that they came from the supermarket. It seems that my colleague had grown up collecting mushrooms in the woods of Poland and, like my wife and her morel-gathering friends, knew what he was doing. Nevertheless, at a previous dinner party, when the mushrooms had not come from the supermarket (he had collected them from the woods near his house), the evening ended abruptly when he happened to mention the fact. Everyone stopped eating and went home, not expecting to survive the night. Toadstools, after all.

Several years after that, my wife and I had the opportunity to live in Switzerland. For just over four years, we struggled continuously with learning enough German to get around, along with all of the other local bits of knowledge we needed on a daily basis. Things like money (“Wait, is this coin 10 Rappen or 50?”), metric units (my wife once stunned a clerk in a shop by asking for “ein hundert Kilogramm Kaese, bitte,” wanting 100 grams of cheese – about a quarter of a pound – but requesting just over 250 pounds instead), and even time (“It says the train leaves at 14:27. What time is that, really?”). Still, it was a fabulous experience that changed our lives forever.

While we lived in Switzerland, I worked in Zurich and our apartment was in Seebach, at the end of one of the tram lines. An intermediate stop between Seebach and Zurich was Oerlikon, which had a market every Saturday morning that became one of our favorite activities. Gradually, we learned what we liked – and what to ask for – in specialties ranging from mountain cheeses (“Bergkaese”) to sweet cider (“Sussmost”). One of the most interesting stands in the market was the one belonging to the mushroom guy, who had a wider variety of fresh mushrooms than either one of us had ever seen before. Good as they looked, though, we really didn’t know what to do with them, so for a long time we didn’t try any. Then one day the Oerlikon market came up in conversation with a friend, who mentioned that he particularly liked the mushroom guy. He would buy “ein hundert Gramm, gemischt” – about a quarter of a pound of assorted mushrooms – and use them to make an omelet. After that, we became regular customers.

Sometimes, the mushroom guy would have really unusual species that we would try on their own. Over time, we tried small puff-balls, hen-of-the-woods, and something more exotic that looked vaguely brain-like. (He drew us a labeled picture, which I still have: the German name was Krause Glucke, which actually sounds more appealing than its English designation, which is “cauliflower fungus.” As Mark Twain said of Wagner’s music, though, it was better than it sounded.) The most unusual mushroom we ever tried from his stand was one called a Riesenbovist, known in English as the giant puffball. A large white sphere, bigger than a basketball, he sold it in slices, each about an inch thick. We bought one, breaded and fried it, and shared it for dinner.

Our departure from Switzerland was something of an ordeal. My wife was scheduled to fly back to the U.S. on Swissair, our favorite airline, about a week before I was to go to Finland for a year as a visiting professor. We had always loved flying Swissair because they treated you so well, but shortly before her scheduled departure, Swissair plunged into a financial abyss that ended in their bankruptcy fairly soon afterwards. It began with an airport holding a Swissair plane for nonpayment of fees. Almost immediately, the airline grounded its fleet to prevent all of their planes from being seized. For a few days, nobody flew anywhere on Swissair. Eventually, flights resumed, but the schedule was highly erratic, with departures regularly cancelled at the last minute. We spent a week in limbo, staying with friends, until my wife was finally able to get on a plane to return to the U.S., the same day I left for Finland.

The day I left Finland to come home for Christmas, the temperature was ten degrees below zero and the sun made its dusky, twilight appearance about 10:30 in the morning and was completely gone again by 2:30 in the afternoon. The following June, my wife came to visit me and we had dinner with some Finnish friends we had known from Zurich. Walking around Helsinki afterwards, we were trying to guess the time: we were tired and it felt late, but it was still bright daylight. Our friends looked at the sky and guessed the time fairly accurately: it was a few minutes before midnight. In the morning, it was bright daylight again by 3:00.

The extreme seasonal variation in Finland seems to profoundly influence the foods that grow there. I have never seen root vegetables as large as those sold at the farm stands in Finland: carrots three feet long and about four inches in diameter at the top, and turnips half again that big. One of my favorite food discoveries from the far north was cloudberries, a small orange berry used to make desserts, jams, and a unique liqueur. In a way, cloudberries in Finland and other Nordic countries are like truffles in France and Italy: not everyone knows where to find them, and those who do, don’t say. One of the great ways to enjoy them is in cloudberry jam, which is frequently available in the U.S. at Ikea stores. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find the soft Finnish cheese that goes so well with cloudberry jam, making a spectacular breakfast, so I make a point of bringing that back with me whenever I return to Finland for a visit.

One of my other favorite things during my year in Finland was an indoor market with stands carrying everything from the spiciest Italian sausage I have ever tasted to smoked reindeer and moose steaks. Once I discovered the market, I would go every Saturday morning and adapt my meal plans for the week as I shopped. It was there that I had the ultimate mushroom experience. My favorite vegetable stand had a collection of large, strange-looking, gnarly things unlike any mushrooms I had ever seen before. Naturally, I had to try one, but the woman who ran the stand looked concerned and was reluctant to sell it to me. She insisted that I wait for one of the other women with better English, who explained to me that there was a special procedure for cooking this mushroom. It was delicious, she assured me, but first I must boil it in a full pot of water, dump all of the water out, boil it a second time in another full pot of water – clean water, she emphasized, not the water I had used before – dump that second pan of water out, rinse off the mushroom in cold water, and then cook it in whatever way I wanted. She repeated these instructions twice and insisted that I repeat them back to her before she would sell me the mushroom.

I followed her instructions when I prepared it for dinner that night, and it was indeed delicious. I didn’t discover until several years later, though, just what it was I had eaten. Growing up, I had seen pictures of morels, the deliciously wrinkly mushrooms my wife and her friends had gathered in the woods, and as an adult I had come to relish them as an occasional expensive treat. Also, I had heard that one of the good things about morels was that their appearance was so distinctive they were unlikely to be confused with other, poisonous mushrooms. In contrast, with more ordinary-looking white mushrooms, for example, you had to be much more careful since they could be confused with things like the Death Angel, so named for good reason. There is, however, a lethally toxic mushroom called the false morel (Gyromitra esculenta) that does look something like the morel. If you boil this mushroom twice, however, discarding the water and rinsing it, that process removes the poison and renders it safe to eat. The only place in the world where they sell them and people actually do eat them is Finland, where the seller is obligated to remind you about boiling them twice in fresh water before you put them in your mouth.

All I can think about now is what my parents and teachers drilled into my head growing up: don’t eat those things you find growing in the woods. They’re toadstools and they will kill you, deader than a doornail. Everybody knows that.