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SLOVAK MATTERS

Hold that mushroom: A curious craze for huby

TALK ABOUT doggedness. Every year, several dozen Slovaks wind up in hospital after poisoning themselves (otrávili sa) with bad mushrooms (jedovaté hríby). But for every death or green-faced patient, thousands of others take to the dripping fall forests, sure of their ability to tell edible mushrooms from their lethal cousins.
Mushroom picking (zbieranie húb or hríbov - the terms are interchangeable) is a national passion. If you can get out of bed early enough in October, you will hear the following conversation in train stations all over the country, with both pensioners and young people clutching baskets (košíky) and shouting across the platforms:
- "Kam ste sa vybrali?" (Where are you heading to?)
- "Na huby predsa." (To pick mushrooms, obviously.)

TALK ABOUT doggedness. Every year, several dozen Slovaks wind up in hospital after poisoning themselves (otrávili sa) with bad mushrooms (jedovaté hríby). But for every death or green-faced patient, thousands of others take to the dripping fall forests, sure of their ability to tell edible mushrooms from their lethal cousins.

Mushroom picking (zbieranie húb or hríbov - the terms are interchangeable) is a national passion. If you can get out of bed early enough in October, you will hear the following conversation in train stations all over the country, with both pensioners and young people clutching baskets (košíky) and shouting across the platforms:

- "Kam ste sa vybrali?" (Where are you heading to?)

- "Na huby predsa." (To pick mushrooms, obviously.)

- "Už rastú?" (Are they growing already?)

- "Jasné, teraz keď prší je ten správny čas." (Sure, now when it's raining is just the right time.)

Mushroom picking is not my favourite activity. It involves miles of tramping through boggy, buggy forests, looking for huba that I never seem to notice but which draw gasps of excitement from my companions, especially if they find a dubák, considered the finest variety of wild mushroom. Drž hubu, I mutter under my breath. Hold your mushroom, i.e. hold your gob, i.e. shaddap.

Hubári (mushroom pickers) are a special breed, hardy in their tolerance for early risings, foolhardy in their self-confident botany. While Slovakia has many varieties of poisonous mushrooms, the real bad one is the muchotrávka zelená ('the green fly poisoner'), which is the brother of the red muchotrávka with white spots. Now even I know not to eat that. Other dangerous fungi are less obvious, however. Hubári claim to know the subtle markings on the mushroom caps (hlavička if small, klobúk if relatively large), the intricate details on the stem (nožička) and roots (hlúb, hlúbik) that tell you whether you can eat the thing in safety. But why take the gamble, I always ask them, when even the dubák tastes like boiled snails?

But if you can't get out of going mushroom picking, you might as well know some of the main names. Some names are derived from the trees near which they grow, such as the dubák, which is found near the dub (oak) tree, the brezák which sprouts under the breza (birch), the smrekovec (smrek-spruce).

Then you have ones that take their names from the Slovak calendar (almost each Slovak Christian name is assigned a certain day on the calendar) reflecting the best time of the year for picking them. Thus you have michalky (after the name Michal, celebrated September 29), and slávky (Slavomíra, celebrated October 10).

Finally, you get names reflecting the properties each mushroom has - the masliak, which is slimy and yellowish-brown (Why, why would you eat such a thing? Why?), the suchohríb, or 'dry mushroom', the modrák, or 'blue mushroom', the prašivka, 'the powder mushroom', which explodes in a grey puff of dust if you step on it (Why, O Slovaks?), and finally the kuriatka, or 'little chicken mushroom' which is deep yellow and appears to be covered in feathers.

Don't say you haven't been warned.

Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners understand the beautiful but difficult Slovak language.
The next Slovak Matters will appear on stands November 4, Vol. 8, No. 42.

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