Autumn's best in a basket: how to forage for mushrooms like a Czech

From mid-May until November, Czechs head to the forest to participate in this national autumn pasttime

Samantha Tatro

Written by Samantha Tatro
Published on 03.09.2020 11:34 (updated on 19.09.2020)

From mid-May until November, Czechs head to the forest to hunt for all variety of local mushrooms to dry for use in potato soups or to cook into a traditional smaženice, or mushroom-egg scramble.

“During the war and in times of misery it nurtured us for generations and we have passed on those experiences and recipes. We just have it in the genes,” photographer Jaroslav Malý, a member of the Czech Mycological Society, said of the nation's passion for fungi in our 2015 interview.

Here’s a complete guide to where, when, and how to pick mushrooms, the Czech way:

When and where to go picking

Image by bertvthul from Pixabay
Image by bertvthul from Pixabay

Most Czechs swear by waiting a day or two after it rains as the combination of moisture and hot weather make for ideal mushrooming conditions. Getting an early start is also essential for beating out the competition, which is why many people keep their picking spots a secret.

Here in Prague, local mushroom enthusiasts head to the wooded areas surrounding the Czech capital, collecting houby in Kunratice, Stromovka, Klánovický, Hvězda, or Divoká Šárka.

For daytrippers, Malý says that he finds the most mushrooms in Mělník and South Bohemia, though his absolute favorite site for picking is the woodlands surrounding Mladé Vožice. 

Figure out which mushrooms are edible — before you go!

Mushrooms laying on a moss in autumn forest stock photo

An easy rule-of-thumb to remember is to stick with neutral colored mushrooms (tan, or brown). Colorful mushrooms tend to mostly be poisonous. But if you don’t recognize a mushroom the best thing to do is avoid it.

Not sure if your bounty is edible? Bring your basket to the Mushroom Advice Center in Prague or just play it safe and admire these magical photos from the height of mushroom season in the Czech Republic.

This Czech-developed mushroom app is another useful tool for determining what to pick.

Mushroom varieties

The most common type of mushroom to pick is called Hřib smrkový. They are often found in spruce forests, though they can be found living with other trees. The other Czech name for this mushroom is pravák, meaning ‘the right one’ – as in the right one to pick.

Its appearance can vary depending on the size. Smaller specimens will have their caps quite tight to a rather bulbous stipe (stem). Larger specimens will have a separate cap showing the yellow sponge containing the spores. These are very popular edible mushrooms, which is no doubt why the scientific name is simply boletus edulis – edible bolete.

A Boletus edulis mushroom, or Hřib smrkový. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Dezidor)
A Boletus edulis mushroom, or Hřib smrkový. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Dezidor)

Another common mushroom is the Bay Bolete mushroom, also known as hřib hnědý. It’s similar to the first mushroom. Because of its long growing season, this is quite a common mushroom. Not as good as the edible bolete, but still a good addition to a soup. The cap is dark brown and distinct from the stipe which is yellow-brown.

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A photo of The Bay Bolete, or hřib hnědý. (Photo: Lukas from London, England / CC BY-SA)
A photo of The Bay Bolete, or hřib hnědý.
(Photo: Lukas from London, England / CC BY-SA)

Another popular pick: the saffron milk cap, or Ryzec borový in Czech. When fresh, this mushroom may smell slightly like fresh milk. It’s popular to use in many cuisines.

A photo of a Saffron milk cap, or Ryzec borový. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Eric Steinert)
A photo of a Saffron milk cap, or Ryzec borový.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Eric Steinert)

You’ll see this mushroom growing out above the rest. The cap of the Parasol mushroom, or Bedla vysoká, is used for cooking and frying. The Parasol mushroom, or Bedla vysoká. (Photo: Böhringer Friedrich/ CC BY-SA 3.0 AT)

The Parasol mushroom, or Bedla vysoká. (Photo: Böhringer Friedrich/ CC BY-SA 3.0 AT)

The art of picking mushrooms

Children gathered in a hike in the nearest forest in search of mushrooms

Any good houbař needs a basket; while most Czechs use wicker baskets to collect mushrooms, a bucket or bag will work as well. A small knife is an essential tool as is a guide, map, or app.

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Wear waterproof shoes like boots or thick sneakers, long socks, and pants that cover your legs. This is important because you are trying to protect against ticks and any other types of fauna that may irritate your skin.

To properly outfit yourself for a mushroom picking excursion, visit LesHoubeles in Prague (they also have an e-shop) a shop devoted to tools, supplies, and fun mushroom-themed goodies.

There’s an art to picking your mushrooms, once you’ve found them. Don’t pick your mushrooms like you would pick a flower – and don’t dig too far into the ground, either. You should work the mushroom out using your fingers to avoid breaking it in any way.

Alternatively, some prefer to use their knife and cut it off, leaving behind some of the stems for the local wildlife to feed on. This sustainable practice helps keep the forest alive.

What to do once the mushrooms have been picked

Photos of mushrooms in a basket. Photo: George Chernilevsky / Public domain
Photos of mushrooms in a basket. Photo: George Chernilevsky / Public domain

Properly clean your mushrooms once you get home. Use your knife to cut off the bottom of the mushroom, including any roots. Then, cut the mushroom lengthwise in half to see if it's healthy. You should be looking for any worms that might have found their way in, marked by dark dots. If you do see this throw out the mushroom. Once you’ve cleaned your mushrooms, soak them in a bowl of warm water to clear off any excess dirt.

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When the mushrooms are clean, you can choose what you do with them. If you plan to store them in the fridge, avoid using plastic wrap as they will lose their freshness.

Drying is a popular and practical way to store your harvest. Thinly slice the mushrooms and place on a thin drying screen then leave in the sun. Depending on the temperature, it can take one to two days to dry a screen’s worth. As the pieces dry they shrink, allowing you to add more to the screen.

Dried mushrooms. Photo: André Karwath aka Aka / CC BY-SA
Dried mushrooms. Photo: André Karwath aka Aka / CC BY-SA

If you want to keep your mushrooms in whole pieces, lightly fry them in solid cooking oil or lard. Then freeze them. The pieces keep their shape and flavor and are great for a winter soup or mushroom sauce.

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Popular ways to prepare mushrooms are to add them to soup, especially potato soup, to bread and fry the caps, or the make smaženice, a dish made by sauteeing a variety of chopped mushrooms with onions and cumin then scrambling in eggs at the end. Here's an English-language recipe for this classic autumn dish.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only. You should always consult the mushrooms you pick with an expert in the field or someone who has extensive experience picking them. Expats.cz is not responsible for any consequences caused by the misuse or accidental consumption of poisonous mushrooms.