Black Sea echoes

Into the woods for mushrooms redolent of childhood and other lands

Black sea echoes Great Island mixes all of Wellfleet's varied topography: dunes, beaches, marshes, and woodlands. (Patricia Borns for The Boston Globe)
By Patricia Borns
Globe Correspondent / September 27, 2009

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WELLFLEET -- If ever there was proof of the attraction the landscape of our families holds for us, you need look no farther than Wellfleet.

“My grandmother loved the Crimea, where her father built a house on the Black Sea,’’ says Marusya Chavchavadze, whose grandparents fled the Bolshevik Revolution and eventually resettled here. The pine woods in Wellfleet reminded her of Russia, she says.

Chavchavadze’s grandfather Paul Chavchavadze said that Wellfleet put him in mind of Tsinandali, his family’s former east Georgian estate. “I’ve been there many times, and it does remind me of these woods,’’ says his granddaughter, who reaches out to victims of the Georgia-Russia conflict through her work as executive director of the Truro-based American Friends of Georgia.

In fact, the outer Cape is rich with Russian associations. Like a scene from a Russian fairy tale, Alexandra Grabbe’s lovingly restored Wellfleet B&B Chez Sven tucks into the trees behind Route 6. In her sitting room hangs a portrait of her cousin Countess Elizaveta Grabbe, one of the first Russian supermodels. In a bookcase, “The Private World of the Last Tsar’’ shows images of the imperial family taken by her grandfather General Count Alexander Grabbe, a gifted photographer and aide de camp to Czar Nicholas II.

“Sixty one percent of Wellfleet is National Seashore,’’ Grabbe tells new arrivals. Besides the beaches, nature walks top her list of favorite things to do. Together, we looked for mushrooms at Bound Brook Island, where the trail network radiates from a Colonial homestead, Atwood Higgins House, to a woodland of gnomish pines twisting in fantastical array.

“The Pitch Pine barrens of the Cape have many fungal species in common with Boreal forest ecosys tems,’’ explains Bill Neill, coauthor with Arleen and Alan Bessette of “Mushrooms of Cape Cod and the National Seashore.’’ “Here, Russian-Americans find a mushroom of the genus Leccinum similar to one they call Podosinovic in their former homeland,’’ Neill says.

“My sister Sasha and I went mushrooming all during our childhoods,’’ Chavchavadze remembers. “Our grandmother taught us which ones to pick. The mushrooms would hang from the low kitchen ceiling on strings during the winter.’’ Her friend Galina Khatutsky, who emigrated from Russia in 1987, is a self-professed hunter-gatherer who enjoys mushrooming in the fall.

“It’s passed down in the family. My parents started it with me when I was a child,’’ says a friend of Grabbe’s whose Russian parents also fled the Bolshevik Revolution.

With no Russian grandmother to guide me, I cajoled my Wellfleet friends the McCormicks into joining my forays, not necessarily in the most productive woodlands (the National Seashore’s Race Point segment is said to be the best for mushrooming), but certainly in beautiful ones, including the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail, Great Island, and a small but sweet loop favored by dog owners across Uncle Tim’s Bridge.

“Poison or edible?’’ we wondered as we scouted the mossy, sandy, pine-needly ground. As recently as 100 years ago, American mushroom hunters tested edibility by eating. Thanks to chemical analysis of the toxins, we now have safer ways.

“The answer depends on knowing the individual species,’’ says Guitta Blau, a Boston Mycological Club member who teaches occasional mushrooming classes at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and who helped me identify our finds. “The mushrooms you see above ground are the fruit of an underground fungus, whose thread-like mycelia absorb water and nutrients in the soil,’’ Blau explains. “Many grow in a cooperative, or mycorrhizal, relationship with a favorite plant or tree.’’ The Cape Cod mushroom that Khatutsky and others especially prize, Leccinum aurantiacum, prefers pines, she says.

While Russians, who tend to be highly practiced, are fearless nibblers - a tiny taste, never swallowed, might reveal bitterness, a sign of possible toxicity, for example - Blau cautions against it unless you know what you’re doing.

I learned of other cultural differences, as well. For instance, Russians cut mushrooms at the stem so the underground strands can continue growing, while Americans often take the whole mushroom to discourage the potential for unwanted parasites or molds. And foraging is more common in Europe. Russian botanical artist Alexander Viazmensky says, “The feeling I experience toward woods and toward mushrooms is nothing short of love.’’

All agree that mushrooms, which bruise easily, should be treated gently, as should the earth around them to conserve the delicate mycelia and spores on which reproduction depends.

I don’t know whether the author Vladimir Nabokov gathered mushrooms when he spent the Thanksgiving holiday here many years ago with literary critic Edmund Wilson (both men died in the ’70s). But Wilson’s daughter Helen, a local artist, learned mushrooming as a child from her mother, Elena, who was of Russian ancestry. Wilson was taught to pick mushrooms sparingly and to cook them deliciously:

“This is a place to use butter,’’ she says of her favorite preparation, mushrooms on buttered toast with pepper and chives. “Remove the gills, slice long and thin, and salt the butter in the pan. Flip the mushrooms around until they begin to sweat and give up their liquid,’’ she instructs, adding, “I wish I had some now.’’

So do I.

Grabbe’s friend told me a wonderful story about her father, a World War I pilot who carried a basket that he filled with wild mushrooms whenever his plane was grounded for repairs:

“Once, a peasant saw my father’s basket and asked him, ‘Little father, are there mushrooms in the sky?’

“ ‘Yes,’ Father replied.

“ ‘How do you get them,’ the woman asked.

“Father answered, ‘We reach out with our sabers and cut them as we fly by.’ ’’

Instead of sabers, my friends and I reached out with small knives as Blau advised, splitting our sides with laughter when a golden-domed vision turned out to be a rock, or a spongy brown thing turned out to be animal dung.

Is so much laughter acceptable when mushrooming?

Chavchavadze recalls eminent Russian visitors who went mushrooming on the Cape, including “a very dignified scientist’’ who skipped through the woods squealing with delight.

“It’s supposed to be fun,’’ Blau assures us.

My own finds had been meager, and then I struck pay dirt. At the edge of a National Seashore trail was an old but respectable specimen that I felt must be the one. Farther ahead, the sounds of Russian conversation floated on the air.

“Excuse me,’’ I approached the speakers. “Can you tell me what this is?’’

“A good one,’’ confirmed a woman introducing herself as Nadia, a Wayland resident who emigrated from Lithuania in the 1980s.

“Do you go mushrooming,’’ I asked.

“Sometimes,’’ she said. “Today, we’re just walking. As a child my family would go to the Curonian Spit where there are high dunes.’’ Gesturing toward the sandy cliffs around us, she smiled, remembering. “It was beautiful. Just like here.’’

Patricia Borns can be reached at

If You Go

What to do

Taking a mushrooming class is advised before trying it, or go with an experienced guide. Russ Cohen offers wild edible
plant/mushroom walks and courses throughout New England. or e-mail eat

Province Lands

Race Point Road, Provincetown


Fees of $15/vehicle/day or $3/day on foot apply on this and other Cape Cod National Seashore beaches. If you forage, respect the limits (see

Great Island and Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trails



Both trail systems belong to the National Seashore

Atwood Higgins House

Pamet Point Road, Wellfleet

House and grounds belonged to an 18th-century settlement. Call 508-255-3421 for free tours.

Where to stay

Chez Sven

Old King's Highway, Wellfleet

Rooms from $130 a night with breakfast, or two-bedroom cottage from $200.