We had just emerged from a guarded location in the Santa Monica Mountains, our hands covered in mud, hair decorated with foliage like dryads, and our faces beaming with the pride knowing my backpack was filled to the brim with pounds of Cantharellus californicus, the egg yolk hued, stocky, coastal variety of the much coveted chanterelle…when we saw them. “Them” being a group of men making a beeline to the very woods we had emerged from, curiously carrying bags, with the agitated darting eyes symptomatic of mushroom fever.
Game recognize game, playa.
My suspicions were confirmed upon hearing the Slavic chin-wag of Russian being uttered amongst the fraternity of three bearish, middle-aged men, led by a fourth with a more than slight resemblance to Vladimir Putin. Russians are renowned for their affinity and knowledge of edible fungus, so it wasn’t a complete surprise to see these men heading into an area rich in mycological life. But whether they had found anything or were just beginning their foray wasn’t completely clear.
Upon noticing Emily and I trickling out of the woods, Putin led his friends diagonally away from us with a suspicious gaze, dissipating into the network of California oaks outlining some of the finest areas for mycelium born fruit (aka mushrooms) before I could get a look at what was in their swollen bags, swinging pendulously like giant testicles at first, quickly hidden away from view as they passed. By good fortune, a moment prior to exiting the woods, I had stowed away my own…ahem…large sack, our haul of chanterelles hidden inside my backpack. To the Russians, we looked nothing more than a pair of slightly disheveled photographers (a highly recommended disguise for foragers).
Vintage postcard images from Russian Mushroom Festival past. Don’t let those smiles and festive outfits fool you, Alexei and Oksana there don’t play when it comes to foraging for mushrooms!
As we walked across a field away from the group, I turned to watch clandestinly behind a large oak, observing two of the Russians scanning the base of trees, occasionally calling out to the others when a discovery was made. We watched them zigzag through the woods bordering an open field, now certain these men were combing the duff for early emergence of mushrooms…just like us! As if mushroom foraging wasn’t already thrilling enough, now we found ourselves engaged in surveillance/spying, with Russians, no less!
I found myself feeling the itch of competition/greed, and I secreted us back to a section of the woods where I knew there were still a few chanterelles left untouched. I was concerned Team Russia would find the remaining stash, as they seemed eagle-eyed compared to the normal oblivious hiker. As noted before, I know Russians love mushrooms, so I wasn’t keen on the idea of these men happening upon my gold mine of mycelium and there was a good chance Putin and gang could find a few of the dried out duds we had left.
Cutting across back to our spot, we picked up some of the remaining chanterelles we had left (and finding several more in the process, including one with a base almost as thick as my wrist) and cleaned up the duff to hide any errant visible mounds. Whatever room I had in my backpack was gone, my backpack packed to the zipper, bulging in a way only John Holmes’ tight jeans would understand.
We could hear the Russians coming ever closer; eventually they convened at a nearby picnic table where we spied them busily comparing the contents of their bags. The itch of suspicious competition quickly evolved into one of curiosity. These men knew about foraging for edible mushrooms, and who knew which mushrooms they had been collecting, what mushroom lore they might share? Inquiring minds needed to know. So I found myself surprising myself and walking up to these four men with the simple inquiry, “Excuse me, were you looking for mushrooms?”
And from that point, the air of suspicion melted away (except the largest fella, whom I believe didn’t speak any English, and was likely wondering why this Asian guy was interested in their mushrooms). As if I had uttered the secret code word in the fraternity of fungus, Putin and his short sidekick friend immediately opened their bags to reveal a bevy of gravy brown gilled mushrooms and spongey boletus, both which they claimed were delicious “cooked with potatoes” or in soups. This was the type of new information I was hoping to glean, as mushroom identification is best learned from both scientific expert and Old World diners. And whom better to learn from than group of Russians who spend Sunday afternoons hunting for mushrooms to throw into their soups?
“Did you find any chanterelles?”, I carefully inquired.
“Yes, but just these two small ones,” the shortest of the men holding up two small shriveled up chants that made me immediately feel guilty of the bounty I had hidden away.
Perhaps it was the joy of discovering other souls with a love of mushroom foraging. Maybe it was the Christmas spirit. But then and there I decided I was going to give these fellas the majority of the chanterelles we had collected. Opening my backpack, a collective exhale of surprise was heard, the four men craning in awe of the large specimens Emily and I had collected nearby, and whatever suspicion they may have had was washed away upon recognizing kindred spirits and a bounty of some of the most prized mushrooms one can forage here in Southern California.
I doled out all the biggest mushrooms to each of them to share, giving the largest to the small fella with the two tiny chanterelles he had found as the only ones nearby. In exchange, they shared a few of their brown gilled varieties, only being able to describe them as “champignon” and delicious to eat. Since I’m unsure about the identification of these mushrooms, I likely won’t eat them, but accepted them in the spirit of food swapping. It was smiles all around, and even though my pack ended up a lot lighter, I felt happy inside knowing these gents would enjoy the tasty joys of chanterelles for weeks to come. And if by chance that was Prime Minister Putin on a mushroom foray, I might have thawed icy relations between our country with a bag of mushrooms.
Anyway, I know I’ll be returning to other hidey-holes where I believe other first crop of chanterelles are quietly emerging soon enough. But trust me, I’ll be keeping my ears and eyes open for Russians…and anyone else for that matter!