Dossier: Family

Safe foraging

It’s autumn, and lovers of nature and fine food are drawn to the woods by the promise of wild mushrooms. One of these enthusiasts is Sandro Fässler.

Text: Janine Radlingmayr; Photos: Maurice Haas; video: Simon Keller and Michael Suter

The air is clear and the birds are singing. Andrin (10) looks at his compass. "This way," he calls out to his father and sister Darina (12). The Fässlers often go to the woods together. And for the last four years they’ve been combining their outings with hunting for mushrooms.

Sandro Fässler only became a mushroom forager because of his kids. To get Andrin and Darina interested in long walks in the fresh air, he came up with a nature hunt. He printed out pictures of leaves, trees and mushrooms on a sheet of paper, and they all went to the woods together to find them. The children found the mushrooms, but Sandro couldn’t answer all their questions on the subject. "Naturally I couldn’t let that rest," remembers the 46-year-old economist with a smile. He bought books, read up on the subject, and found out all about the mushrooms that grow in this country and their favourite places. The next goal soon became clear: “I absolutely had to find a cèpe.”

Mushrooms and where they live

But cèpes (also known as porcini or boletus mushrooms) don’t grow everywhere. They prefer fairly acid ground, which you can tell by the fact that not much grows there. In most cases they’re also places where you find old oaks or spruce together with beech trees. But that’s not to say that you’ll always find cèpes growing there. Sandro Fässler has a comparison to illustrate the importance of looking in the right places: “However much you want peace and quiet, you’re not going to find it by the A1 motorway.  It’s the same for mushrooms: the conditions have to be right for them to grow.” The weather also plays a key role in whether you find the right mushrooms or not. Mushrooms basically like it when it’s damp.

Gathering mushrooms – the right way

Mushrooms often grow year after year in the same places. So if you find them, it’s worth noting their location on a map.  “Once I found a dream spot for mushroom hunting, so I took a photo and tried to make a precise mental note of it. But when I tried to go back next day, I simply couldn’t find the spot,” remembers Sandro. After that he developed his own app, which he now uses to record all the relevant data: coordinates, species of mushroom and special features.

“Foraging for mushrooms generally takes a lot of time and planning.” For this reason, Sandro now heads for the woods more frequently on his own with his GPS. First he checks what the weather has been like in the previous weeks, when the canton has put foraging off-limits, the mushroom inspector’s opening hours, and his calendar: “Wild mushrooms don’t stay fresh for long once you pick them, so they taste best when you eat them immediately.”

Sandro also recommends anyone gathering mushrooms to take them to an official inspector. Many edible mushrooms are hardly distinguishable from their toxic counterparts. The popular champignon mushroom, for example, looks very similar to the highly poisonous death cap (Amanita phalloides).

Experience nature through mushroom hunting

For Sandro Fässler, it’s not about merely filling his basket . Gathering mushrooms is much more than that: It’s a wonderfully relaxing hobby that gets you out in the fresh air. “It’s about enjoying time outdoors in the woods with my family, showing things to my kids, getting plenty of exercise, and even using my own app. And of course your own porcini risotto afterwards.” The trouble is, apart from Sandro, nobody else in the family eats mushrooms.

That doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy finding them, though. Son Andrin, for example, remembers the highlight of his foraging career, while on holiday in the Black Forest, with glee: “First I found fly agaric, and then right afterwards Dad found his biggest ever cèpes.” It’s important for the Fässlers for the children to have experiences like that out in nature.

“Yeah,” shouts Andrin, plunging deeper into the spruce forest. He’s spotted some pear puffballs, the kids’ favourite mushroom. “You step on it and it makes a funny cloud,” adds Darina, running after her brother.