In a scene from one of my favorite movies, 2005's Czech film Zelary, the main character Hana, who is hiding from the Nazis in a remote mountain village called Zelary, gets a lesson from one of the old ladies of the village on the wild herbs that grow in the area. The scene brought back a flood of good memories for me because three years before that in 2002, my friend Ivan and I would spend many hours on our bikes searching for wild herbs and mushrooms in the woods and fields near his home of the village Borovce.
My first visit to Slovakia was in September 2001, which is when wild mushrooms come into harvest. About a week into my short visit to Borovce, Ivan took me mushrooming in the woods near Lancar, a small village known for its 18th Century hilltop church.
After arriving in the woods, Ivan and I parked our bikes on the side of the road near a secret spot where Ivan knew the best mushrooms grew. Like Dad with his secret woodcutting places near McCall, Idaho and Loki and Katie with their secret swim holes in Donnelly, Idaho, Ivan had his secret mushrooming place. Armed with bags, Ivan and I made our way into the woods and began searching for mushrooms. Since Dad had taken me mushrooming near McCall a couple of times, I had a fair idea of what morels and brains looked like, but Slovakian wild mushrooms are a little different than American wild mushrooms, and I had to call Ivan over a few times to a patch I had discovered to make sure that what I wanted to pick was edible and not poisonous. It is said that the Ancient Roman Ruler Claudius died after imbibing poisoned mushrooms that his wicked sister and nephew had prepared for him, and I wasn't about to end my 2001 European vacation inadvertantely re-enacting the death scene from I, Claudius in which Derek Jacobi's stuttering Claudius dies after eating those famous mushrooms.
After about an hour mushrooming, Ivan and I had filled our bags and strapped the bounty on his bike and went into Lancar to explore the church and have a drink in another village before heading back to Borovce before it got dark. Ivan's mother Irena greeted our smiling faces at the door of her home and immediately took our bounty and went to work on them. Most of the mushrooms Irena lined on plastic sheeting and put outside by the house to dry for winter use. The remaining fresh mushrooms were sauteed in butter and made into an omelet that is one of the best omelets I have ever eaten. It put button mushrooms from WinCo to shame.
Most Slovakian villagers are poor and cannot afford proper medical care and rely on herbal remedies to cure what ails them. On several occasions, Ivan's parents would take their bikes into the woods near their Borovce home and harvets elderberry flowers from the trees on the roadsides leading into the woods. They would come home with huge bags of white sweet-smelling flowers and put them in a big pan with water and sugar and make a syrup that was jarred and used to sweeten tea and was to help stomach trouble. I grew to like sweetening my tea after lunch with the syrup and wish that we had some elderberries here in Idaho, and I doubt if we will find them in Florida.
Other trips into the forest by Ivan's parents would be to find Zhilava or nettles, the prickly leaves that are common in Middle Eastern cooking and can leave the pickers with scratched up arms and hands. Ivan, his parents, and I would go into the woods on separate occasions and with gloves, pick tons of Zhilava which would be laid out on plastic sheeting in the Anders' yard and dried out for tea which was good for stomach aches.
More on herbing and mushrooming in Slovakia in my next entry!