From Ground to Table, the Magic of Mushrooms

The morning air was crisp as I walked along the outskirts of southwestern Vienna toward an unfamiliar forest; if the lukewarm coffee in my to-go cup hadn’t woken me up, the brisk walk uphill from Rodaun certainly did the trick. Eager and out of breath, I gradually made out a small field by the forest, occupied by a horde of 20-somethings clad in activewear and trainers, each holding a wicker basket. They chatted about their weekends, showing off brand new pocket knives and forest guides. We were off in search of mushrooms and everyone had come prepared.

Amid the sea of Gore-Tex stood Irmgard Krisai-Greilhuber, the charismatic president of the Mycological Society of Vienna, who would be holding today’s talk on identifying the different varietals we were likely to encounter. As seasoned enthusiasts laced up robust leather hiking boots, we prepared to set off into the Maurerwald in Liesing for today’s hunt.

A mixed forest known for its bountiful fungi – one of the closest within city limits – we were assembled here largely thanks to climate change: Peak mushroom season now stretches well beyond the traditional autumn, according to a 2012 study led by Krisai-Greilhuber herself, who was standing right in front of me.

“While a clear trend is hard to identify as of yet when it comes to local favorites like the Steinpilz (porcini) or Eierschwammerl (chanterelle), the harvest season has noticeably extended in both directions,” she explained, adding that “some typical autumnal varieties already grow in early summer.” Besides the desirable and increasingly rare morel, which can be found from early April onward, foragers can expect to find wild Champignon varieties and Calvatia gigantea, lovingly referred to by hobbyists as the “giant puffball,” from August.

Learning to hunt mushrooms in Austria is serious business; one wrong choice could be fatal as many delectable favorites resemble highly poisonous ones. Traditionally, the knowledge of how to distinguish a Parasol from a Pantherpilz (panther cap) is passed down through generations as Schwammerlweisheiten (pearls of mushroom wisdom), practical advice that no app or printed guide could ever fully convey.

“Some of the fondest memories with my grandmother involve mushrooms hunting,” recounted Julia P., a political science student from Vienna who tries to avoid the farmed Champignons in the supermarket. “Like friends, she would tell me, the best ones are the hardest to find.” Together, they would explore the forests of the Waldviertel, finding Scarletina Bolete, (red-dotted bolete) a blue bruising mushroom, in the spring.

Senses and Sensibility

For those of us lacking an expert in the family, the Mycological Society bridges knowledge gaps, teaching safe and sustainable mushroom hunting since 1919, when postwar food shortages drove many Austrians to the forests for sustenance. Closely tied to the University of Vienna’s botany department, it offers regular excursions and advice in exchange for a small fee to support its research.

“Mushroom identification involves more than just the eyes,” Krisai-Greilhuber announced, lecturing as we explored the forest. She came to a halt: “You must also use your nose to smell the mushroom.” For the risk-takers among us, we were free to have a taste, “…but be sure to spit out your sample immediately!” Not exactly a wine tasting.

Two or three enthusiasts nibbled at their harvests, while others – myself included – hung back, then hesitantly followed their example.

We discovered that toxic varieties will often reveal themselves through an acrid or chemical smell and bitter taste, while sweet or fruity scents give away the edible kind. Just how vital scent is only became clear to me a few months later, when a woman named Marta I met while foraging in Slovakia told me she found mushrooms patches by simply following her nose. Marta also taught me to always leave a couple behind – to encourage new growth come the next rain.

With that, a few students peeled off to gather what they hoped would be exciting finds, only to be disappointed when Krisai-Greilhuber’s lexicological knowledge identified them as something else entirely. An ink cap was quickly revealed as edible – but deadly when combined with alcohol, as it prevents the body from properly metabolizing ethanol.

By noon, we had collected enough within a five-minute radius to fill three giant tables. But it was a deceptive banquet, served up for the sole purpose of showing exactly what not to eat. As each mushroom was identified by members of the society, I was humbled.

Exkursion Rekawinkel

Out of nearly a hundred types, only a handful were identified as safe. In that moment, I understood why the typical forager focuses on only a few varieties, armed with all senses and some mushroom wisdom learned along the way. And there was always a backup: If even the smallest doubt remained, they could always head to the Marktamt (market authority) at Naschmarkt to get an expert opinion.

Although mere fruits of a much larger system underground, these weird and wonderful specimens need to be protected as they play an important role in the forest ecosystem. So, we were reminded, make sure to follow Austrian regulations when foraging, and stay under the limit of 2 kg per day. And as always, “Leave no trace.” The forests will thank us later.