Poland Loves Mushrooms (and So Do I)

Mushrooms are a big deal over here. In the US, most supermarkets sell maybe white or Cremini mushrooms, pre-packaged and, all too frequently, pre-sliced. I think that would be tantamount to sacrilege in Poland. Here, the markets are filled with giant baskets of fresh mushrooms in overwhelming variety (the only thing I have ever seen compare is Whole Foods, and I frequently doubt the freshness of many of their varieties). There is a long-standing tradition of mushroom picking in Slavic culture, with guides being passed down from generation to generation. There’s even a scene in Pan Tadeusz, a 19th-century Polish epic by Adam Mickiewicz all about it:

“Of mushrooms there were plenty: the lads gathered the fair-cheeked fox-mushrooms, so famous in the Lithuanian songs as the emblem of maidenhood, for the worms do not eat them, and, marvellous to say, no insect alights on them; the young ladies hunted for the slender pine-lover, which the song calls the colonel of the mushrooms. All were eager for the this, though of more modest stature and less famous in song, is still the most delicious, whether fresh or salted, whether in autumn or in winter. But the Seneschal gathered the toadstool fly-bane.

The remainder of the mushroom family are despised because they are injurious or of poor flavour, but they are not useless; they give food to beasts and shelter to insects, and are an ornament to the groves. On the green cloth of the meadows they rise up like lines of table dishes: here are the leaf-mushrooms with their rounded borders, silver, yellow, and red, like little glasses filled with various sorts of wine; the kozlak, like the bulging bottom of an upturned cup; the funnels, like slender champagne glasses; the round, white, broad, flat whities, like china coffee-cups filled with milk; and the round puff-ball, filled with a blackish dust, like a pepper-shaker. The names of the others are known only in the language of hares or wolves; by men they have not been christened, but they are innumerable. No one deigns to touch the wolf or hare varieties; but whenever a person bends down to them, he straightway perceives his mistake, grows angry and breaks the mushroom or kicks it with his foot: in thus defiling the grass he acts with great indiscretion.” (Mickiewicz)

Apparently you can even arrange mushroom picking holidays (or so Google tells me). Now, I didn’t pick my mushrooms – I bought them at the Stary Kleparz (right off the Basztowa LOT tram stop), which is supposedly the best place for mushroom-buying and has the added convenience of being on my way home from class. Here are my purchases:

The one on the left is a chanterelle, the middle one is called “kania” (I think – they’re really huge and spongy and would probably make awesome mushroom burgers), and I have no idea what the one on the right is. Here is what became of them:

Roasted Mushrooms with Goat Cheese and Polenta

A variant on this recipe

3-4 cups of mushrooms, chopped into big-ish pieces (fresh ones are the best!)
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1/3 c olive oil

1.5 c uncooked polenta
6 c water
1 chilli pepper, halved and seeded (if you have any functioning nerves in your hands, you may want to wear gloves for that)
1 clove garlic
a sprig of rosemary
3 tbs butter
150 g (5 oz) goat cheese

salt and pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (205 degrees C). Toss the mushrooms with the olive oil and minced garlic and some salt and pepper to taste and spread on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven 15-20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, make the polenta. Place the chilli pepper, clove of garlic and rosemary in a saucepan with the water, season with salt, and bring to a boil. Strain the solids out and place the water back in the saucepan. When it comes to a boil, stir in the polenta and keep stirring until it is cooked, about 15 minutes for me. Immediately stir in the butter.

3. To serve, stir the goat cheese into the polenta and spoon some mushrooms on top. I threw some goat cheese on top of that for good measure.

Note: I’d recommend keeping your nasal passages or any other membranes as far away from the chilli pepper and steam emitted by the water even after the pepper has been removed. It burns them (2 hours later, I’m still coughing…).

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