The cold, wet summer may have been a disappointment for swimmers or hikers, but it has turned out to be a blessing for mushroom pickers.
Swiss newspapers have run stories about this summer’s fungi bounty, featuring photos of children with mushrooms bigger than their heads.
Police in the canton of Graubünden last month confiscated100 kilograms of mushrooms as overly eager pickers exceeded their daily quota.
Inspired by these tales of success, I have decided the time has come for me to learn the art of mushroom picking. Who better to teach me than the Mycological Club of Winterthur, who lets me tag along on one of their mushroom-collecting excursions in a nearby forest.
Their long-time president, Anita Wehrli, is a local mushroom expert, who has helped operate Winterthur’s mushroom inspection centre for the past three decades.
More than 5,000 types
The day is warm and sunny and visions of porcini and chanterelles dance through my head. It soon becomes clear, however, that mushroom picking is a more complicated experience than I envisioned.
Wehrli advises me that while there are 5,000 to 6,000 different types of mushrooms in Switzerland, only 200 are edible, 20 are very poisonous, and the rest are inedible (too bitter, for example).
To make matters more confusing, the edible mushrooms often have poisonous look-alikes.
“It’s very interesting from a scientific point of view,” explains club member Roland Rüdt, who carries a large basket to collect his fungi treasures.
We soon reach the meeting place: the mushroom hunt is on. I join another club member, David Zangger, as he leaves the main path, making his way through wild blackberry bushes to the location where we can begin our search.
It isn’t easy to spot the mushrooms. The tree canopy dampens the light from above, while plants, leaves and sticks carpet the ground below, providing ample camouflage for the fungi.
Soon, Zangger bends down and digs out his first mushroom. Mushroom hunters are careful to preserve the stem as it provides crucial clues as to whether the specimen is a delicacy or a toxin.
Zangger breaks off part of the cap, which is filled with white milk. The verdict? Not edible.
While this one won't end up on the dinner table, he carefully places it in his cotton bag so that he can show it to other members of the club later on.
Hunting for mushrooms an 'education'
Education is one of the main goals of the Mycological Club, and the members meet up regularly during the spring, summer and fall to identify the mushrooms they find.
The show-and-tell exercise allows everyone to learn from each other. Mushrooms, after all, are a tricky business.
A small, unoffending brown mushroom that resembles those in the supermarket may end up making you seriously sick or even killing you.
That’s why experts such as Wehrli encourage pickers to bring their mushrooms to the inspection centres located throughout Switzerland to confirm if they are indeed safe to eat.
Two people recently ended up at the cantonal hospital in Winterthur, as they felt unwell after eating mushrooms they had collected.
They happened to keep a sample – a cautionary measure – and an expert was able to identify it as the dreaded death cap, which is suspected to have killed 18th century Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI.
“There are no rules with mushrooms that always apply,” Zangger explains as he adds other discoveries to his bag.
With that advice in mind, I return to the forest on my own a few days later. I decide to focus my efforts on finding one specific, edible mushroom that I had seen on the previous excursion.
I ignore the many decomposing mushrooms, along with exotic specimens that resemble flowers and corral.
After a while, I come upon a mushroom that I hoped was a match, though it was unlikely since the stem was different.
Soon it is time to head back to town to present my mushroom to the expert. But it is hard to stop searching, and I can't help thinking of mushroom picking as a kind of forest roulette.
Who knows if a prize mushroom like a monster porcini could be right around the corner?
Inspecting the bounty
Arriving at the tiny inspection office in the centre of Winterthur – open for just 30 minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with longer hours on the weekend – I am surprised to find it full of other collectors.
Some are clearly experienced, their crates full of treasures like trumpet or hedgehog mushrooms. Others are still learning, and the inspector swiftly confiscates their poisonous finds.
While waiting, I quiz my fellow mushroom pickers about whether this would be a vintage year. They are sceptical, referring to decomposing and mouldy mushrooms caused by the wet weather.
Indeed, while the first batch of mushrooms came early this year, the verdict is still out on how well they will grow in coming months.
A fungi expert recently warned in the Blick newspaper that dryness or the Bise wind could ruin the mushroom season in coming months.
Finally, it is my turn. I step up to the counter to show my mushroom.
The expert, Wehrli, loses no time in telling me the bad news. My mushroom is not edible, and the specimen disappears behind the counter.
It’s a good thing I already stocked up on mushrooms for dinner at the supermarket.
If you go mushroom picking in Switzerland:
-Be aware that in some cantons, such as Zurich, there is a prohibition period each month during the season for mushroom picking, aimed at preventing over-picking
-In Zurich, the period lasts 10 days, when inspection offices are also closed
-Respect daily quotas set by each canton (for example, one kilogram in Zurich, two kilograms in Graubünden) for mushrooms or you could face a fine
-Mushroom collecting is forbidden in all nature and plant reserves in Switzerland
-Use a basket to collect your mushrooms, not a plastic bag
-Never cut off the stem as it is key for identifying the mushroom
-Clean and sort your mushrooms before taking them to the inspection centre
-Check this website to find the nearest Swiss mushroom inspection office
Source: Winterthur mushroom inspection centre — ugs.winterthur.ch/pilzkontrolle/