I ALWAYS thought a mushroom was merely a mushroom. Round thing. Little stalk. Gnome sitting on top; maybe with fishing rod.
But no; not where I am now. Still in Poland. This country is no easier to escape from than when it was behind the Iron Curtain. The difference is that now they kill you with kindness. When the Russians owned it they just used to kill you.
So… I am still in Poland; and I’ve been gathering mushrooms with Maryska, my host. Maryska, and everyone else in Poland. Come August and September they all head for the woods and they gather…well, everything really. I’m surprised they leave the trees standing. They gather raspberries, blackcurrants, blackberries, plums, rowanberries, nuts and – mushrooms.
But in Poland mushrooms are not necessarily round, with a little stalk. I gathered a bag full that looked like my dead grandfather’s ears. I mean this literally. They look like my dead grandfather’s ears today, and he’s been dead for 40 years.
They come in other shapes, too, that are not unlike other bits of my grandfather’s anatomy, but we won’t go there. What I did discover is that the ones I collected (Poles call them kurka) are delicious. Boil, add butter, onion, a little salt and saute for a while.
I know “bung another mushroom on the barbie” will never catch on, but believe me, it should.
Kurka is very nearly my entire Polish vocabulary, along with pomocy! (help!). Unless you’re Polish this expression will evoke peels of laughter from small children or food from adults.
The Poles are proud of their food and rightly so. There’s lots of it and it’s still (mostly) home-made.
This is not yet a land of plastic triple-packaging and the inevitable erosion of taste and quality, but I fear it’s coming.
Maybe the nation’s history will hold back the change.
Maryska showed me her ration book. Her family (husband, son and Maryska) were allowed 1.8kg of pork for a month, or 60 grams a day. Twenty grams a day each. Imagine eating the first joint of your little finger every day. That’s all you get.
Oh yes, and one kilogram of semolina. (No wonder people tried to escape communism – imagine having to eat one kilogram of semolina every month).
They also got one pair of shoes every six months.
Of course the ration books only identified your entitlement – you still had to pay.
And you had to queue for up to five hours for the privilege, Maryska tells me.
I hear you say: “So what’s the big deal? I remember rationing, after World War II. You just got on with it.”
Yes, I remember that, too. But we’re not talking about the war years here. We’re talking 1989 – the year I arrived in Australia. The bicentennial celebrations were just around the corner. Home ownership in Australia was among the highest in the world, and if you wanted to gorge yourself to death on pork, steak and even semolina no one would stop you and you didn’t have to queue to do it.
But before you get too big for your boots, consider this – when was the last time you jumped on your bike, headed for the forests and picked tonight’s dinner?
When was the last time you chose each individual peach for your self from a pile of peaches that all tasted as if they were distilled from the sun?
When was the last time you yelled “help!” and people ran after you with food?
I think I’ll stay a little longer.