There’s a Polish proverb that says “Lepsze rydz niż nic.” In literal translation it says “Better the Lactarius deliciousus (saffron milkcap mushroom) than nothing at all.” On another level it’s said in situations to indicate that something was gained but not exactly what you wanted or what you got was better than nothing at all. In the mushroom picking world of Poland everyone would prefer to find Boletus edulis, the porcini mushroom, king of forest mushrooms. However, in the absence of porcini, the saffron milk cap will do.
There’s a reason this woman, who just emerged from the forest, is happy to pose for me. She holds in her hand a lovely specimen of the much sought-after Boletus edulis called prawdziwek (translates into “the true one” in Polish) and also called borowik szlachetny or “noble boletus.” It is considered the tastiest of all edible mushrooms whether dried or marinated and was the preferred mushroom for the tables of Poland’s rich and famous. Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584), a famous 16th century poet and author, described the duties of workers on his estate. There were those tending the grain harvests, the vegetable gardens, the dairy barns and then there were those assigned to gather mushrooms. Foraging for mushrooms was not a hobby like it is now but genuinely hard work as it was an important foodstuff from May until first frosts. Mushrooms were eaten fresh, dried for use in the wintertime, and when salt became widely available, they were stored by salting down or pickling.
So what about the second rate saffron milkcap? the Lactarius deliciosus? Why give it such a name if not delicious? As the proverb implies, it’s a consolation prize, something one could enjoy even if not fully what you wanted. Lucyna Ćwierczakiewicz (1826-1901), the famous Polish cookbook author, wrote a lot about mushrooms and didn’t scorn it at all. "Mushrooms are collected twice a year in spring and autumn. The young tender spring mushrooms should be sliced and dried in the sun and will be like fresh when added to vegetables in winter. The fall mushrooms should be dried on a string or in the oven after baking bread or for marinating because they are longer lasting and easier to keep. Rydze begin at the end of August until late into the year. Be careful to get them as frosts can begin early in November and the rydze are lost. “
Besides drying, salting and pickling mushrooms for winter consumption, mushrooms were also collected to trade or to sell at the marketplace to buy items like kerosene, matches or shoes.
Market in Krakow 1931. Images from Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe.
I grew up listening to my mother talk about the forests of Poland where she picked berries and mushrooms with her siblings. She used the proverb Lepsze rydz niż nic a lot. It’s her I think about when on mushroom hunting excursions with my cousins in Poland.
In the third photo, my basket is the empty one behind the bouquet of heather I had picked. There were only two mushrooms left in my basket by the time my cousin finished throwing out all the non-edible ones I had picked. Embarrassing, since even little Tomek knew his mushrooms but as the proverb says, it's better than nothing at all.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.