Sunday, 7 October 2012

Autumnal Elements of Russian Culture (Mushrooms)

Mushroom Festival
Or, 'Russian Events Which Deviate Massively from the Theme'. Okay, the first one was better.

So, mushrooms play a big part in Russian culture. In the autumn, mushroom gathering is seemingly a standard important event for rural Russians at least. It’s hard to tell whether Russians from urban areas actually seriously partake in the mushroom foraging, or whether they just attend token celebrations like the one I went to on Saturday.

The gathering of mushrooms appears to be a serious event, as you need either specialist insider knowledge or a gribok (mushroom guide), unless you want to poison yourself. Come to think of it, that would be a spectacularly gruesome peasant death...

Nevertheless, our introduction to the mushroom festival began with this:

We knew from the get-go that it would be a solemn affair.

After paying a modest 20r (£0.40), we were greeted by the sounds of music and cheering. The music at this point was of the traditional Russian fare and the first stall we visited had recreated the forest floor on its table:
The people behind the stall, who belonged to some variant of the St Petersburg Mushroom society, were very keen to educate passers-by on the different varieties of mushroom. Very, very keen.
Apparently Russians are initiated into the tradition of mushroom-gathering from an early age:

"I gathered them, I brought them, but who's going to clean them?" #Russianproblems
By this point, we were expecting the festival to be chock full of mushrooms and little else. Then this passed us: 
We were somewhat perturbed by the appearance of a child-sized train with a very menacing-looking driver, but reasoned that such entertainment was still in keeping with the theme. Several feet away, we were met with this:

We concluded that our expectations were misguided. While Russians are for the most part immovable on procedure in a bureaucratic context, they are also absolutely bonkers. The collection of stalls at this event was as wonderfully weird as when my babushka presented with a pasta omelette in an attempt to make me feel more at home, and just as endearing.

There was also a horse and two ponies, along with a goat and an elk with half a horn being fed branches in a makeshift pen with a reindeer tied to it. 

The Ferret Society graciously made an appearance and ferrets tumbled over people and each other.
There were several stalls selling mushroom soup cooked in large cauldrons and saucepans of mushrooms and potatoes fried over charcoal. Among the stalls of babushkas selling wooden combs, woollen vests and eclectic memorabilia decorated with images of Putin or cats were offers of natural medicine involving honey or mushrooms.
Mushroom cakes
"Masculine Strength" honey
I was given a booklet on mushroom medicine which also includes a song about mushrooms and several recipes. This was the highlight of my day until I wandered towards the source of the music, which was turning into pop.

In front of the stage with the live singer, giant mushrooms and a strawberry danced around and chased children.
 However, the actual weird ones were the Russians who joined in. As I stood taking pictures I had to dance around a little so as not to stand out.
My favourite point was the Slavic rendition of Venus by Bananarama, when a new giant mushroom joined the group.
Having had my fill of the madness, I managed to get a picture of this adorable old man sitting by his handful of sycamore leaves as I was leaving.

Although the mushroom-gathering season has passed without our participation, this festival made me ecstatically happy. Russians are just totally mad and carefree in their celebration.

My other favourite tradition is the thick hot chocolate. Granted, this is more of a winter tradition, but I had (drank is not the right verb) my first one in autumn and the weather was still absolute pants. Anyway:
It was impossible to get a picture on reception of my drink because...I was busy drink/eating it. The chocolate is so thick that the waiter brings a glass of water for each person to help wash it down. Luckily our whipped cream helped to thin out the mixture a little - and make it full of delicious calories. Russians definitely know how to do autumn. Naysayers?
Happy 60th birthday Mr Putin!

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