Mushroom culture runs deep in Slovenia
Mushroom foraging is an important part of Slovenian culture, to the extent that it is among the nation's favourite pastimes. And knowledge of mushrooms, built over generations, continues to expand as new species and uses for mushrooms are discovered.
Dating back to the settlement of Slovenian lands by ancient Slavs, musroom foraging remains strongly rooted in Slovenia, as well as in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Italy, less so in the south of the Balkans, says mycologist and mushroom forager Bojan Arzenšek.
In the past forests mostly welcomed the poor who picked mushrooms for everyday food but later people were increasingly drawn to them by curiosity and the desire to research - and eat - mushrooms.
In Slovenia, known for its woodlands, a true paradise for mushrooms is the north-western region of Gorenjska, especially the Pokljuka and Jelovica plateaus, the steep hills by the Sora River and the Karavanke Mountains. Some years, the area around Ljubljana is also rich in mushrooms, according to Arzenšek.
More than 5,000 species of fungi have been identified in Slovenia, 111 of which are endangered and 41 protected. Around 50 new species are discovered every year. "You never know behind which bush you'll find a special mushroom," Arzenšek said.
"These are not just mushrooms you stick in a pot like porcini, chanterelle or parasol mushrooms, but also those that bring out the researcher in us, amateur mycologists," he added.
Some mushrooms are used in folk medicine, says Arzenšek. They have antibacterial, antiviral and antitumour properties and can strengthen the nervous and immune systems.
Slovenians have a good knowledge of mushrooms with an average mushroom picker being able to tell apart 25 species of mushrooms without special training, which is much higher than elsewhere, says Katarina Grabnar Apostolites, an amateur mycologist.
Every year dozens of tonnes of mushrooms are foraged in Slovenia. A mushroom enthusiast will pick on average around 20 kilogrammes per year, Arzenšek said.
Mushrooms were in abundance this summer, especially in July. "It's been a long time since we recorded as many mushrooms as we did in July," Arzenšek noted.
September, which is normally the high season of mushrooms, is however very dry. The mushrooms growing now amount to only 1% of the mushrooms in July. Still, Arzenšek notes that the season is not over and that more will grow at the end of September and in October.
"We are not fortune tellers but we can guarantee that there will be mushrooms," Arzenšek said.
The growth of mushrooms is affected by many factors, such as humidity and temperature. Climate change is also impacting the growth, as some species are appearing in areas where they normally did not.
"I found the jack-o'-lantern mushroom in the Gorenjska region, even though it is a species typical for the Primorska region and the Pannonian Basin," Arzenšek said.
A common misconception about mushrooms is that if a snail is eating it, it is edible. That is why mushroom exhibitions try to feature poisonous mushrooms like the death cap, half eaten by snails.
"Just because a mushroom tastes good doesn't mean that it is not poisonous," says Grabnar Apostolides, adding that some people that ate a death cap and survived said that it tasted very good.
Mushrooms should be experienced with all senses, says Grabnar Apostolides. They should be looked at, smelled, some also tasted. She advises that after touching a mushroom, foragers wipe their hands in moss, which has antiseptic properties.
Still, there is no rule that can help distinguish an edible mushroom from a poisonous one. "Mushrooms are something you have to know," Arzenšek says.