Trippin’ on ‘shrooms

mushroom pasta from bibberche.com

Father drove our orange Russian-made Lada across the rickety one-way bridge over a spring and parked it in the meadow along the dirt road, making sure there was enough room for a horse-drawn carriage or a tractor to squeeze by. My cousin, Mira, and I unloaded our backpacks and Father carried the checkered bag full of Mother’s preserves, coffee, Å¡ljivovica*, and sugar cubes.

It was the summer after sixth grade and we were embarking on an adventure, getting ready to spend a month with a family so remotely related to ours that only in Serbia could they be counted as kin. I could barely hide my excitement and anxiety, bringing forth my favorite passages from “Heidi”, as we left the familiar world of concrete and steel, and entered the mysterious kingdom of secluded rural living. We hiked uphill for about an hour, surrounded by the silence of a perfect summer morning interrupted only by an occasional chirping chorus of cicadas and the shriek of some unfamiliar bird.

I admired Father as he led us skillfully through the thickets and across the streams. I was always forgetting that he grew up in those mountains before he became an urban surgeon. As we approached the last plateau, a cluster of buildings came into view, all whitewashed walls and dark, wooden roofs. The dogs announced our arrival and our relatives came down to meet us. I did not know any of them and my heart cramped, overwhelmed by shyness. The elderly matriarch hugged me gently and my head rested on her soft bosom which smelled like grass, freshly baked bread, and milk, while her rough fingers brushed the strands of hair that hid my forehead. Her smile was warm and I felt as if I had known her for centuries.

We hugged and kissed everybody that came down to greet us. They escorted us as we climbed the last hundred yards to the main house. The women moved around in a synchronized dance, adding the finishing touches to the lunch. The men claimed the rustic wooden table hidden from the sun’s fiery touch by the cool shade of an ancient beech tree, and loudly toasted each other with tiny glasses filled with plum brandy. Mira and I decided to stay inside, cowering in the corner. Our cousin BoÅ¡ko was twelve, just like us, and he reluctantly joined us at the table. His sister Maja, a couple of years older, brought glasses of fresh milk for all of us, and left to help her mother and grandmother in the kitchen.

Unable to overcome the awkwardness of the moment, the three of us attacked the milk with ferocity, not looking up, pretending to concentrate on drinking. When we were done, we put our glasses down and shyly raised our glances upward, knowing that somebody would have to start the small talk, and dreading it. We looked at each other and our shoulders began to tremble as we started giggling. We all had thick, white, milk moustaches from fervently diving into our glasses, trying to drown the shyness. Pretty soon we were laughing uncontrollably, tears streaming down our faces, the wall between us shattered as we pointed at each other and at the same time attempted to wipe our mouths. The shards of ice were expelled from our hearts**, and we knew that summer would bring us together.

The women ushered us out and we joined the men at the table underneath the tree. It was lunch time. All of a sudden, we realized we were ravenous from the long hike as our eyes followed each plate with anticipation. Warm bread was placed in the middle, flanked by dishes full of home-made cheese and kajmak; home-cured bacon, sausage, and pršuta***; sweet tomatoes sprinkled with salt and paired with diced onion; and hard-boiled eggs with bright orange yolks collected that morning from the chicken coop.

Silence descended and only grunts and satisfied sighs were heard. Some dishes were moved around to accommodate the additional plates of roasted chicken and new potatoes, accompanied by grilled peppers served with garlic and a vinaigrette. As if it were an afterthought, Maja brought a platter of bright orange mushrooms sauteed with onions and bacon, and it sat to the side, unassuming and modest, not eager to detract from the allure of animal protein.

I did not know what I was eating, but I certainly knew that I loved it. My first taste of chanterelles was enough to mark me for life. Finding out that my cousins foraged for the mushrooms made their earthy flavor even more appealing. When we were done, we did not wait for the adults to finish. We rose from the table filled with energy and ready to explore this beautiful, wondrous world opening in front of us.

Just like our cousins, we got up every day at sunrise and took the cows to graze, running after them with a huge slab of freshly baked bread and kajmak. We rode the sled down the grassy slopes, tumbling at times, and getting our knees scraped. We picked wild flowers, pressed them, and made a herbarium. We spent about fifteen minutes gathering hay into tall stacks, only to abandon the difficult task and tend to the orphaned baby birds we found in a nest. We sat in the shade playing with Barbies while our cousins helped with the farm chores. We went foraging for chanterelles, skipping over the streams, holding onto the slim tree-trunks as we hiked uphill, yelling in excitement at every bright-orange cluster we spied.

I have not had fresh chanterelles since the summer of 1976. I cannot buy the puny, dessicated specimens available at the stores when I know that forests are full of beautiful, fresh mushrooms waiting to be picked. One of these days I’ll find myself in the woods looking again for the clusters of orange fungi. In the meantime, I satisfy my hunger with cultivated mushrooms while I continue to dream of the wild ones.

Sarah of Maison Cupcake has started a Forever Nigella event. This month the theme is Ciao Italia! and we are challenged to make an Italian Nigella recipe. I made Nigella’s Big Pasta with Mushrooms, Parsley, Garlic, and Thyme. Simple, but bursting with complementing bold flavors, this dish was a favorite in my family. I will never stop fantasizing about fresh chanterelles, but for now I can still enjoy the woody aroma of creminis, portabellos, and champignons.

*Å ljivovica (slivovitz) is Serbian plum brandy

**This is a reference to the Hans Cristian Andersen’s story The Snow Queen.

***Pršuta is Serbian cured and smoked pork loin, extremely flavorful and addictive.

Big Mushrrom Pasta from bibberche.com

I am sending this pasta to Presto Pasta Nights hosted by Claire of Chez Cayenne, and started by Ruth of Once upon the Feast.

17 Responses to Trippin’ on ‘shrooms

  1. Laurie says:

    Lana,
    What a wonderful story. I was at Natasha’s the other day and she made me Turkish coffee and showed me how you dip the sugar cube in, and then take a bite. She also told me about the plum brandy. I just love these stories, and while I didn’t live in Europe I did have many wonderful memories at my great-grandmother’s little farm here in Massachusetts. The Russians were so similar in their traditions. You have a gift.

    Laurie

  2. I love your description of the chanterelles! This sounds like an absolutely wonderful recipe.

  3. More wonderful stories. And love the sound of Pršuta.

  4. SMITH BITES says:

    i’ve said it before and i’ll say it again and again, i love your stories Lana – it is such a pleasure to come here and spend time with you, getting to know you. you are terrific writer and i hope you have a chance to write a book someday – this dish is perfect, btw – my mouth is watering and it’s breakfast time!

  5. Martha (MM) says:

    What a wonderful post! I felt like I was right there with you enjoying every moment! The dish looks delicious! Stopping by from feed me tweet me :-)

  6. Jelena says:

    Pre par godina sam prvi put probalamiks šumskih pečuraka koje sam samo sa malo putera i soli ispekla u rerni. Toliko smo slatko jeli sa hlebom, i preterali da nam je bilo loše celu noć. Naravno ja sam umislila da smo se otrovali, ali smo samo preterali. U Bg. se sada na Bajlonijevoj pijaci mogu naći i neke egzotičnije vrste osim standardnih šampinjona i bukovača, ali mi Srbi volimo meso. Šteta!

  7. Serene says:

    Oh, man. I’ve never had Chantarelles, and now I’m reluctant to try them unless they’re fresh ones! :-)

  8. Priscilla says:

    You truly are a talented writer, Lana. I would love to forage for chanterelles and experience fresh ones vs. the “puny, dessicated” ones sold in stores :) They’re like gold and I can only imagine how divine really fresh ones are!

  9. Lana, I loved your story. I grew up in the city and had the opportunity to stay on a farm for several weeks one summer when I was 13 years old. We milked cows and picked sweet corn right from the fields to eat for dinner. Your story reminded me of that wonderful memory. Thank you.

  10. I love your story… very descriptive of your summer past. I am reminded of my own summer immersions in the countryside.
    Now if only we could share memories and stories together while enjoying a plate of your pasta that would be wonderful haha.

    thanks for sharing lana! i look forward to reading more of your stories!

    xo,
    malou

  11. That’s an amazing story, so evocative and it reminds me of my first trip to Serbia to see my husband’s relatives on the farthest edge of a small town in Vojvodina… we passed many horses and carts (this was in 2002) although I wonder whether the past ten years has seen these disappear.

    This dish is very Nigella, mushrooms and sherry together sound wonderful.

    Thanks for taking part in Forever Nigella 3, Ciao!

  12. Ruth says:

    What a truly lovely story. I felt like I was there. And your mushroom pasta has me drooling before breakfast. I wonder if I can find some nice looking Chanterelles here. If not… cremini & shitake here I come. Thanks for sharing with Presto Pasta Nights. See you at the roundup on Friday.

  13. Jamie says:

    Beautiful story and, as always, your storytelling brings it alive. What a wonderful memory full of emotions, sounds, flavors… and a wonderful way to lead into this luscious recipe. We occasionally go mushroom hunting here in France but it has been so many years since we actually collected any that we could cook and eat and yes they were so much better for the collecting! Perfect, Lana!

  14. That recipe looks like heaven, but even more so I loved the story. I can picture the whole day like a movie. You are a very talented writer!

  15. What lovely, lovely memories! I so enjoyed reading this post. Your mushroom pasta looks just wonderful too. I’m a huge fan of Nigella’s recipes. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post with Feed Me Tweet Me Follow Me Home. Hope to see you again this week!

  16. Claudia says:

    Beautiful memories told quite beautifully. I love the way you blend it in with the food and recipes.

  17. Lana says:

    @Laurie, traditionally you have to “marry” your Turkish coffee with something strong and alcoholic, preferably plum brandy:)

    @Chunklet, chanterelles are my favorite mushrooms so far (but I am yet to taste fresh morels:)

    @Mairi, I might ask you for advice if I decide to smoke my own prsuta!

    @Debra, you are always so nice:) I am blushing!

    @ Martha, thanks for stopping by and enjoying my story:)

    @Jelena, nema nista ukusnije, za mene, od svezih pecuraka. Samo da mi je da se docepam neke sume ovde i vodicha:)

    @Serene, that’s why I am going without:(

    @Priscilla, I almost came off as a mushroom snob, LOL! Maybe we should get together and go foraging for mushrooms in Northern California?

    @Lynne, our stories are very similar! I loved that summer and still think of it!

    @Malou, we are so close that we should get together for lunch!

    @Sarah, I think that not too much has changed since 2002. I love the horses and carts, they bring a sense of nostalgia to me:) BTW, I love making dishes for Forever Nigella!

    @Ruth, I love all the mushrooms, I am just partial to chanterelles because I picked them myself!

    @Jamie, thinking of food is the best mnemonic exercise! I wish I realized earlier how much food means to me:)

    @Sarah, thanks for enjoying my story:) It was really nice meeting you! Looking forward to the next time!

    @April, you are always so kind and encouraging! Thanks so much!

    @Claudia, thanks! Weaving food and memories keeps me sane:) Love your blog and all the beautiful plants that surround you!

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