Colin Gerald Dryden Thubron (born 1939) is a British novelist and travel writer. In 1983 he published a book called "Among the Russians", as an account of his long journey around Russia in an old Morris Marina car. This is a short extract from that book, that recounts a vivid story about mushroom picking he heard on the road.
To the Russian the wild mushroom has a peculiar mystique, and these expeditions lie somewhere between sport and ritual. They mingle the country-love of an English blackberry hunt with the delicate discrimnation of the blossom-viewing Japanese. If Russia's national tree is the silver birch, then her national plant is this magic fungus, burgeoning in the forest shadows...
"Mushroom-hunting... I wish I could express it to you." Volodya's face became filled with this obscure national excitement. "It's like this. You get into the forests and you know instinctively if the conditions are right for them. You can sense it. It gives you a strange thrill. Perhaps the grass is growing at the right thickness, or there's the right amount of sun. You can even smell them. You know that here there'll be mushrooms" - he spoke the word "mushrooms" in a priestly hush - "so you go forward in the shadows, or in a light clearing perhaps, and there they are, under the birches!" He reached out in tender abstraction and plucked a ghostly handful from the air. "Have you ever sniffed mushrooms? The poisonous ones smell bitter, but the good ones - you'll remember that fragrance for ever!"
He went on to talk about the different kinds and qualities of mushroom, and how they grew and where to find them - delicate white mushrooms with umbrellaed hats, which bred in the pine forests red, strong-tasting birch-mushrooms with whitish stems and feverish black specks; the yellow "little foxes", which grew in huddles all together: and the sticky, dark-tipped mushroom called "butter-covered", delicate and sweet. Then there was the apyata which multiplied on shrubs - "you can pick a whole bough of them!" - and at last, in late autumn, came a beautiful green-capped mushroom which it was sacrilege to fry. All these mushrooms, he said, might be boiled in salt and pepper, laced with garlic and onions, and the red ones fried in butter and cut into bits until they appeared to have shrunk into nothing, then gobbled down with vodka all winter.
We set on the verge for a little longer, talking of disconnected things. He was going to Brest, and I to Smolensk, and it was futile to pretend that we would ever meet again. This evanescence haunted all my friendships here. Their intimacy was a momentary triumph over the prejudice and fear which had warped us all our lives; but it could never be repeated.
Volodya clasped my hand in parting, and suddenly said: "Isn't it all ridiculous - I mean propaganda, war. Really I don't understand." He stared at where we'd been sitting - an orphaned circle of crushed grass. "If only I were head of the Politburo, and you were President of America, we'd sigh eternal peace at once" - he smiled sadly - "and go mushroom-picking together!"
I never again equated the Russian system with the Russian people.
From the book "Among the Russians" by Colin Thubron, W. Heinemann Ltd, London, 1983.