Thursday, October 9, 2008


“Hey, I’m out mushrooming!” an American friend phoned to tell me. There was joy in his voice. He was a city boy who rarely experienced nature.


“No. With some Estonians.”

“So they tell you which ones to pick?”

“No. I just pick the ones that look nice.”

“How do you know which ones are poison?”

“Oh, I don’t eat them.”

“So you let the Estonians eat the poisonous ones?”

“Oh, come on,” he sighed. “I think the people who eat them will know the difference!”

And so it goes with most foreigners picking mushrooms in Estonia. We wander through the forest wondering whether that liivaseen might be a männiriisikas. In the end, not wanting to suffer the shame of returning empty handed, we give up and put both in our sack. You could say we adopt the wartime cry of the infantryman: Shoot ‘em all. Let God sort ‘em out.

I’ve mushroomed for over ten years now with Estonians from Valga to Tallinn, and I’m still as confused as the day I started. The only mushroom I can identify for sure is the kukeseen, the chanterelle. I like it not only because it’s tasty and easy to identify, but because when I bring a basketful to an Estonian family I don’t have to hear “Oh, thanks, but these are ussitanud.” As I’ve been led to believe, the chanterelle is the only mushroom worms won’t eat.

I’ve guest-mushroomed with dozens of Estonian families, and no two experiences have been alike.

“We only pick puravikud,” a Võru grandmother told me. “We leave the others to rot.”

“But what about this one?” I asked, proudly displaying one I thought looked edible.

Põdramokk,” she replied. “Slightly poisonous. Leave it for the Russians.”

On another trip with a Hiiumaa family, the father explained we’d be picking only kitse- and kännumamplid. I had a tough time finding them and would occasionally run to him with one I’d picked with a previous family. He’d shrug his shoulders as if to say, Well, if you insist.

After my third or fourth mushrooming trip, I concluded that every Estonian is a mushroom snob of a different kind. And there’s no predicting which kind. If there is any pattern to the snobbery, it’s that Estonians will often leave the tatikad. I’m still not sure which ones they are, except that they’re slimy, and I generally try to avoid slimy things.

My basic mushrooming education was given me by a woman with the last name of Kuus--Estonian for both "fir" and "six." She was a tough, charismatic woman from Southern Estonia, who her friends called “Pool Seitse” (Six-and-a-Half) because she was just a little bit more than kuus. She loaned me a pair of old rubber boots, put a basket and knife in my hands, and set out to teach me the tricks of the trade. “You’re walking right past them!” was her refrain of the day. Pool Seitse was well into her sixties, wore thick coke-bottle glasses when she read, but she could spot a kevadkorgits at fifty meters without any optical aid. Despite my ignorance, she saw something in my soul and refused to give up on me. She made a hell of an effort to educate me, and I’m sorry to report I let her down. I never became a mushroom meister.

Many of my expatriate friends have asked if I could bring them hallucinogenic mushrooms. I’m not quite sure which ones they are, though a friend once pointed them out to me: bright red with white spots. I believe they’re called kärbseseened. But there are both big ones and small ones which match the description, and the friend who pointed them out was an ornithologist, so I wasn’t convinced of his knowledge of mushrooms. Also, I’d hate to be the one who killed a friend with bad drugs.

Even Estonians can sometimes get it wrong. My wife Liina’s friend Tiina called several weeks ago, asking us if we wanted to go mushrooming. We were busy painting the house that day and had to say no.

The next day Tiina called from the hospital. She’s made a fresh mushroom sauce to go on her pasta, and it turned out she’d picked the wrong sort. “The doctor says I’m lucky my three-year-old son didn’t eat them,” she reported to Liina. I continued painting the house, this time with new vigor, grateful to the sticky white paint which had spared me a miserable fate.

Liina disappeared into the house with the phone, consoling her friend, but surely quite happy that she hadn’t gone mushrooming. Later, I saw Liina walking to the car dressed entirely in white. On her head she wore a giant red beret which she’d covered with small white spots of paper. “Wanna come?” she asked.


“To visit Tiina in the hospital.” Liina roamed around our garden, gathering any kind of mushroom she saw, even plucking them off trees until she had filled a small sandwich bag.

I tried to imagine myself in Tiina’s place in the hospital. I wondered if I’d find it funny if a friend showed up dressed as a giant kärbseseen with a sack full of fungus as a gift. I thought I probably wouldn’t.

I told Liina I’d continue painting the house. And then I thought of Pool Seitse. Pool Seitse would find it funny. She would have howled at the sight of an arrogant and ignorant city girl filling her sack with suspect mushrooms and preparing a gourmet poison pasta sauce in a thousand-kroon pan.

“Hey,” I said to Liina, as she was about to get in the car. “I will come with you. But only if you’ve got another one of those berets.” Liina smiled. She said she could come up with something.