Like property speculation, when it comes to mushroom picking, it’s all about location, location, location. When looking for tasty fungi one should go as far out to the forest as possible, and preferably where there are a good many old trees, particularly pine and oak. The reason for this, as Viktor explains, is that mushrooms absorb nutrients from their immediate environment; mushrooms growing by the side of the highway will be full of those heavy metals and chemicals thrown out by labouring Ladas and Oligarch driven jeeps. Eating a pie made from mushrooms growing by the highway is pretty much akin to breathing in concentrated highway, so avoid them at all costs. “In the past the Chornobyl region was famed for its mushrooms and the Soviet agricultural authorities would organise large conferences there. Today that’s all changed of course but if somebody is looking for a great place for a good weekend's mushroom picking you can’t go far wrong with Kaniv, down along the Dnipro” explains Viktor. Always investigate mushrooms with a stick or knife; touching a poisonous mushroom with your hands could well cause a reaction. Stay well away from those which are red, as this is nature’s way of telling us not to touch but in general you should only pick those mushrooms which you know; “Even I make mistakes sometimes” says Viktor, “don’t experiment with yourself.” Poisonous mushrooms are no laughing matter; this year around twenty people have been poisoned from mushrooms in the Kyiv region alone while across the country, as Viktor deadpans, if you are feeling bad after eating wild mushrooms, it really is best to vomit, “at least it’s out” he says. Once you’ve found a nice secluded enclave you can begin your mushroom hunt. The tasty fungi are found under trees, as they feed off nutrients from the roots and the number of mushrooms that will end up in your basket depends largely on the weather and time of year; “Mushrooms are at their peak between June and October. They tend to come out more when it’s been a wet summer” effuses Viktor. So we can expect a bumper crop of mushrooms over the next few months then? “Well”, chuckles Viktor, “that’s the idea. But sometimes all the conditions can be right and there'll be no mushrooms around at all. Really, their appearance can be like magic.”
Viktor certainly knows what he is talking about; in fact it’s fair to say that when he comes to mushrooms he is one of the main man not only in Ukraine, but Europe and possibly the world. He comes from a long line of fungi fanciers; his grandmother was held in high esteem by the Soviet regime while his father Taras was also an expert in the field. Growing up in a house full of microscopes and spores, Viktor grew up in the family business, becoming a leading light in mycology and the cultivation of mushrooms. This expertise has taken Dr. Bilay, who currently works for the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences, all around the world, with authorities in Australia, China, the USA, and many European nations all seeking his advice. In an age when politicians lavish honours on stars of stage and screen, Viktor is one of the few scientists to have received official recognition when last year President Yuschenko personally presented him with an award for the ‘Development of the Scientific Cultivation of Mushrooms and Its Introduction Into the Agrocomplex of Ukraine”. High living standards and rising wages in the West have made mushroom picking and cultivation virtually unprofitable in all Western European countries other than Ireland, making Ukraine, with its expertise, vast tracks of land, and relatively cheap workforce, makes the country a potential goldmine.
Mushrooms have been a popular dish in Ukraine for hundreds of years in no small part to the medicinal properties many believed, and continue to do so, they possess. Kyiv Rus chronicles dating back to the eleventh century tell of mushrooms being applied against uterus cancer, to help prevent and cure tuberculosis, and for the purpose of cauterization. Mushroom mania in the medical world reached its peak during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when healers from court surgeons to the local wise woman proscribed various forms of mushroom for sweating, stomach bleedings, and even frostbite. Mushrooms came to the fore even more so during cholera epidemics, which continued to kill of Kyivites with regularity into the early nineteenth century. During these times many locals had to rely on traditional folk remedies as, owing to policies of Russification, all governmental advice was written in Russia, leaving many, and the peasantry in particular, none the wiser. Unfortunately much of this old received wisdom has been lost over the midst of time but today there is renewed interest in the medicinal properties of the mushroom, with the Japanese in particular cultivating the fungi for medical purposes.
Surprisingly perhaps, Viktor still enjoys a good mushroom based dish, despite working with spores and strains of the fungi day in and day out. He even has a special recipe which he wants to share with What’s On readers; “I like to eat my mushrooms raw. That's cultivated mushrooms not wild mushrooms. Don't eat wild mushrooms raw unless you know what you are really doing. I cut them up thinly, add salt and pepper, and serve them up with a salad. The best mushrooms to use, if we are talking about wild mushrooms, are Boletus Edulis, or Penny Bun Bolete as they are called in English. I call them the ‘King of Mushrooms’ owing to their size, abundance and great taste and smell, and they are generally quite easy to find, usually growing by large old oak trees and pine.” And when it comes to mushroom recommendations, it doesn’t come much higher than that!
Mushroom Pickings Dos and Don’ts
• Do read up on mushrooms before to go out to the woods
• Don’t even thinking about picking a mushroom you do not know
• Do go out into the heart of the woods. This is where the best mushrooms grow.
• Don’t pick mushrooms growing besides roads or in other environmental of dubious quality. Mushrooms absorb almost anything
• Do carry a stick and a knife to examine the mushroom
• Don’t touch any mushroom with your hands until it has been correctly identified