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PRAGUE - All across the Czech Republic millions of people will take to the woods this month in search of mushrooms.
Czechs are among the biggest fungi fanatics in the world, with an estimated seven million - or 70 percent of the population - going mushroom picking every year, according to a study by Prague?s Agricultural University.
A hobby rooted in tradition
?It?s a great hobby as you are out in the fresh air, the whole family can spend the day together, the mushrooms taste great and they are free,? said Miroslav Smotlacha, head of the Czech Mushroom Society, which boasts 2,000 members.
?Just as other people collect stamps or postcards we gather mushrooms. The beauty is that unlike other plant species they all look so different,? he added.
Indeed anyone who considers a mushroom to be small brown and boring should think again. From the giant rounded Langermannia gigantea which can grow to almost one metre (three feet) to the multicolored Boletus calopus and the feather-shaped Grigola frondosa they come in all shapes and sizes and in various shades of red, purple, orange and yellow - as well as ubiquitous beige and brown.
?I first went looking for mushrooms with my mother as an unborn baby and have been hooked ever since,? said 84-year-old Smotlacha, who still goes in search of mushrooms every Sunday to his own secret spot in a Prague park.
?I bring them back and my wife makes us a delicious lunch with them,? he said proudly.
After getting under way in early September the main mushroom season usually lasts until late November as millions head into the forests armed with a basket, small knife and sometimes an encylopaedia to help identify which types are safe to eat.
Fried, dried, cooked in soup or pickled, Czech families live off the fruit of their labours for months.
It?s a hobby deeply rooted in tradition, which dates back to medieval times.
Mushroom picking flourished during four decades of communism when the shops were bare, and people were mostly banned from travelling abroad and instead retreated to their country cottages at weekends and holidays.
?I have been mushroom picking my whole life and still love going as it is such an enjoyable pastime. You have a lovely day out in the woods seeing beautiful mushrooms then you can bring them home and enjoy their great taste,? said 65-year-old Eva Jerieova.
Pavel Stastny, a member of the Czech Mushroom Society, claims he can identify 1,000 types of mushrooms and whether they are edible or poisonous.
?I have been learning to identify them ever since I first went mushroom picking with my family at the age of five and I am constantly finding new varieties,? he explained.
At Prague?s Zofin Palace this month during the world?s largest exhibition of mushrooms, featuring 400 types, Stastny was happy to point out the differences between the exhibits.
Mushroom picking becoming popular as a big hobby
Occasionally dipping into his pocket for his penknife Stastny, 62, gently scratched the surface to release different smells, varying from an almost chemical odour to aniseed or a fresh forest scent.
Stastny believes there are as many as 20,000 species of mushroom growing in the Czech Republic, one tenth of the number worldwide.
?Every single type is beautiful and the great thing is that we are constantly finding new ones,? he said enthusiastically.
?The recipe to a healthy life is to avoid smoking and drinking hard alcohol, walk regularly in the woods and eat mushrooms,? he added.
According to Smotlacha, whose father Frantisek founded the society in 1912, conditions in the country is ideal for mushrooms.
?One third of the country is covered by forest while weather conditions are usually not too extreme. Mushrooms need a steady climate, plenty of water and they don?t like strong winds,? he explained.
While many people pick the mushrooms to eat, other fanatics just want to spot as many types as possible or photograph them.
?Mushroom picking is becoming more popular in other countries such as France, the United States and Canada but there is nowhere else in the world where it is as big a hobby as here,? Smotlacha said.
But he conceded that the changes wrought by the end of communism 15 years ago, particularly among the younger generation, meant many people today have less time for the annual mushroom hunt.