Friday, 2 November 2012

Our mushroom experts

What a wonderful market - so many smiling faces, many of them new visitors who had been in Mád for the Furmint Ünnepe - and one of our producers had to dash home to stock up on more grape seed oil!

Mushrooms were in focus this time and we were joined by the Zemplén Gombás Egyesület, Király Csemegék of Aggtelek (permanent exhibitors), a couple from the Gourmand Company and Mr Krausz representing the Hegyköz Gombás Egyesülelt. I decided it was definitely time to start the interviews with producers, to share a snippet of their story with you. So, here they are.

The Zemplén Gombás Egyesület is one of the most active local societies, organising fungus exhibitions, mushroom walks, fun and educational events such as exhibitions and arts competitions for children, and courses for adults too, many of them free. The group of 117 members ranges in age up to a grand (and sprightly!) 74.  Learning from each other and from experts. President Judit Kőszeginé Tóth explained public service and community building are at the heart of the group she founded in 2004. Communities tend to develop from a group of people with similar interests, and then the icing on the cake is the chance to get to know more people. The group learns from each other, as well as from experts they bring in from outside, and they aim to pass this on to children, the coming generation.
The second two main thread is to educate people about mushrooms and fungus to reduce the fear associated with this form of life that is neither animal nor plant. Helping people to see, not just to look. To wonder at the world around - they certainly live their motto: "Striving for people and nature".

 Don’t just look, see!

What a wonderful expression, and one that is at the heart of the society’s philosophy. They hope to provide the opportunity for people (of whatever age) to wonder, to be opne to the wondrous. Judit explained one of the aims is to educate about the rather strange world of mushrooms, one that is often treated with fear due to ignorance. So, to provide knowledge, to lead to understanding and respect. But this also serves a very practical purpose too: fungus are a source of nutrition (often from unpolluted areas) and also represent a form of potential income for those who collect and / or process them.

It’s all free!

... and, as well as being free, the events are open to all. And they really mean all – from the tiny baby to the 74-year-old who regularly joins the foraging sessions. You can find out more about them on the website – or simply take a browse to see what this enthusiastic group has already been up to.

As well as making links in the society where they live, the group has frequent trips to other like-minded societies in Poland, Transylvania and Switzerland where locals with a keen eye for their own fungus guide them round their favourite 'shrooming spots. But their knowledge of English, and the Latin names helps them get the most from their hosts and give their best to their guests, as they explore the forest and field together. I think this reflects their community-building function: on the international stage as well as the very local.

As well as organising “fungus forages”, they also work with youth and schools. The group meets regularly on the fourth Monday of every month in the Cultural House in Sátoraljaúhely, and organises bi-annual exhibitions both there and in neighbouring Sárospatak. The first time I went I was amazed not only by the variety, by also by the artistic and educational nature of presentation. Most of the ‘shrooms were carefully placed on a slice of wood, surrounded by fruits and leaves commonly found near the mushroom. Habitat in situ – but in the centre of the town!

I have great respect for Judit and the group. An active bunch who do their utmost to make guests feel at home, and to pass on their knowledge. No trace of “it’s more valuable if I only know it”. Quite the opposite. They embody the “it’s more valuable if we share our knowledge”. Our thanks to them for joining us at the market (despite the fact the dry weather meant they could bring very few fresh mushrooms. No matter they have a great selection of dried, and brought interesting tapló too.)

The most local of our mushroomers was Mr Krausz who brought his dried mushrooms from the Hegyköz, a fairly isolated strip between the Zemplén Mountains and the Slovakian border, where he and his wife live in a village house, the garden of which runs up to the forest behind. She had always loved fungus, and this passion grew when they moved from the city to this remote village, where he also became more involved. After drying for themselves for a while, they started buying up mushrooms locally when an Italian gastrophile arrived, keen for the wild forest mushrooms of the untouched Zemplén Mountains. (In the meantime Mrs Krausz qualified as a mushroom inspector - necessary for exporting mushrooms.) As the villagers realised the potential, they became more involved, more knowledgeable about the fungus in the woods.

This couple’s work also means that local knowledge about fungus has not declined to the same extent as in other areas not far away. Indeed, even holiday makers (particularly those who have bought second homes here) have also developed their identification and culinary skills as a result.
This cottage industry is based around the large and well-organised sheds behind their house. After being sliced, the mushrooms are spread out on large racks in the sun to dry, and then stored in the well-organised building out the back of the house I was lucky enough to visit a few years ago. What a place! Never have I seen so many mushrooms: it was certainly an impressive sight.

Their garden stretches up into the woods giving them direct access to the “mushroom forests” behind. During our conversation Mr Krausz mentioned the issue of land rights. Where not so long ago the woods were, in terms of mushrooming at least, a kind of common land everyone had access to, the situation is changing. He said the increase in private ownership has been accompanied by owners’ efforts to restrict access, obviously creating tension between absentee landlords that have bought large tracts for future capital gains and the local people for whom the woods represent not only a source of nutrition, but also one of (supplementary) income in a rather deprived area. Not to mention the knowledge they pass on to future generations. There is a limit on the quantity of mushrooms one person can pick a day: 10 kilos.

But back to the ‘shrooms and their route to market... When totally dry, they are carefully placed into the packet. We all know beside quality, presentation is a key to sales, as well as being an integral part of an artistic being. Another tale István told was that, not long after having offered to help his wife, she took the packet off him saying something to the effect of, “No, not like that. You have to slide them in the same way. That way they look more attractive.” Check out the photo to see if you agree!
The products? Well Mr Krausz bought sliced ceps and mushroom powder to the market. They can be used for adding depth and wonderful flavour to soups, stews and casseroles, even in salads. To use simply rehydrate briefly. Obviously the water can be used in the dish too. As Hungarians say "Jó étvágyat!" - or Bon appetit!

To the east of the mountains in the our county is the limestone karst area of Aggtelek, like Tokaj, a world heritage region but for its geological wonders - including the cave system stretching across the border between Hungary and Slovakia. These forests are the pantry from which Krisztina and Gábor of Király Csemegék select their raw materials for the various mushroom, rose hip and sloe delicacies they create (to name just a few).

Gábor Koltay spent many an hour with his botanist father, wandering together and exploring the natural world, setting a firm base for his later work. After university his interest inspired him to learn more about mushrooms and complete a college course. Initially a hobby, along with collecting recipes and stories, the turning point was in 2003 when he and his wife moved from Budapest to Aggtelek (a small village renowned for its spectacular cave system in the beech mountains, the Bükk, north of Eger and near the Slovakian border). Here mushrooms and other wildcrafting represented a possible source of income for the couple, or at least part of their income, and they set about discovering the local edible fungi and collecting traditional recipes for the mushrooms and wild fruits. It soon became clear that it was worthwhile securing the necessary paperwork and the business has gone from strength to strength since. They are in the process of expanding their centre, to create a “mini-factory” for this family-run business.

The process?

The mushrooms are all cut by hand (they use no machines) and then dried in the sun for about two days. If the weather is not so fine, they heat the drying area to ensure complete dryness.

When the particular mushroom needs to be abálás, (or they are preparing one of their many wild fruit jams) they use the üst, the traditional large pot under which fire is set.


Their website has an extensive collection of recipes (in Hungarian).

And an idea of how to use them... Mushroom burgers specially prepared for the market! Yum!

Like so many enthusiasts, the Koltays also undertake to pass on their knowledge to the next generation and beyond. Their business is in a peasant’s house and garden that is open to the public, they often accept school trips and run ecological courses too, primarily connected with (you guessed it!) fungus, herbs and sustainability.

The Gourmand Company story starts with Zsolt Keksz who took some of his truffle products to a small event just two years ago. (His quest for the truffle goes back seven years.)

The high quality was well received and he realised it would be worth expanding the range, dressing products in an appropriately elegant way and continuing exploration of the market. Since then the business has expanded to include more friends and family members and, since everyone is intimately involved, they all feel the company is a part of them. A bit like the market that so many hands and hearts come together to create! - obviously without artificial taste enhancers. As they so rightly put it: "Why would we need them anyway when natural tastes are so splendid in themselves?!" So, no "aromas" or preservatives, just good old-fashioned natural ingredients.

The truffles are from the limestone slopes of the Bükk Mountains near Eger, an extensive area of beech forest. Other mushrooms are from the ancient oak forests of the Mátra not far away. The future? Well, to maintain taste and quality, "smuggling mouthfuls of joy into people's everyday lives". So, not only an essential part of our nutrition and authentic tastes, they also help us reawaken our links to the underground forest.

Here is their truffle oil...
And truffle butter...

Creativity runs deep - and here is an example...

Well, not exactly a mushroom company or society, but I thought I’d include Csudaíz here, as they always come up with a special design fitting the theme of the market. And the mushroom lends itself so well to gingerbread designs I thought! And by the end of the day they'd sprung up like...

“Miracle taste” may be a good English name for this gingerbread business set up in 2008 by husband and wife team and Éva Ferenczy. Involved in crafts all their lives, they experimented with all sorts of forms of expression as artists and teachers, including for sale, as workshops and in schools. He told me that, in view of the current economic situation, they had decided on the gingerbread figure, a small taste of art and sweetness combined, and at an affordable price. So for the last couple of years they have been exploring this avenue, creating new paths for gastro-art.

Gingerbread design?

From the famous Ferenczy family of artists, Éva designs all the shapes and designs for the figures, as well as the logo, packaging and advertising too. A fairly successful business based in Pálháza, the company has their main outlet / display / show shop at Kőkapú, the nearby hunting lodge and popular tourist destination at the end of the narrow-gauge railway. Obviously demand is too much for the couple to satisfy alone, and they employ a number of locals that once worked as porcelain painters at the Hollóháza factory. This ensures true artistry on top too.

Company size?

They told me they do not want to get much bigger, in order to retain careful control over the quality of both visual and edible. The couple are responsible for sales too, and after some experiences that were less than satisfactory, they have decided not to sell to retailers – to the surprise of some representatives who assume they will be received with open arms.

The product?

All their recipes are their own. Where possible they try to source from őstermelők (Hungarian legal status for small-scale producers) to ensure high quality and also to play their part in supporting the local economy. Particularly walnuts, the traditional sticky plum jam and, of course, the essential honey. I didn’t ask any trade secrets to be honest. Though I was told that the icing (icing sugar, water and something else) gives a special quality. As for the taste – I can vouch for them! Not only the couple of times I’ve been given them while at the market and I suddenly realise it’s time to eat something. Soft, gently spicy – and so very beautiful!

And this time on our very local market - an experienced trader from Transylvania - on tour in Hungary!

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