Looking for wild mushrooms? Look to Ukraine. The country is a hotbed for wild mushrooms — and foraging them to eat and sell is something of a national pastime.
This year, a bumper crop of mushrooms is rewarding locals with plenty to eat and sell to restaurants, which is helping some families navigate an economic downturn during the pandemic.
Related: How did tourism become so popular?
But because of the virus, other mushroom-loving Ukrainians are hurting — namely, tour guides who lead mushroom-foraging trips.
Andriy Gnytka is the founder of Green Ukraine, a company that designs tours for visitors to western Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains. But although he’s a native Ukrainian, he didn’t always love mushrooms.
“It all started from one of my guests [who] was from Germany. And he said, ‘my wife would like to come to Ukraine to pick up mushrooms.’ And I said, who would go to another country to pick up mushrooms?”
“It all started from one of my guests [who] was from Germany,” Gnytka said. “And he said, ‘My wife would like to come to Ukraine to pick up mushrooms.’ And I said, who would go to another country to pick up mushrooms?”
Gnytka hadn’t realized that foraging for mushrooms in his home region — which is rural and virtually untouched by modern industry — would appeal to visitors.
“Slowly, slowly, I had to learn something about mushrooms. How they grow, how to cook them,” he said. “And this is how we love each other, me and mushrooms.”
But this year, that love was unrequited. Even with a glut of mushrooms (porcini, chanterelle and morels are most common to the region), Gnytka didn’t have anyone to teach the joys of mushroom foraging.
In an average year, Gnytka’s company, which also leads horseback and Jeep tours, would see a steady stream of tourists from March to November.
“This year, I only had guests three times [because of the pandemic],” he said. “So, it's a really big problem for me.”
Courtesy of Andriy Gnytka
While Gnytka relies on tourists to pick mushrooms, some locals rely on the mushrooms themselves — picking them to sell to restaurants brings money in for those who have lost jobs during the pandemic.
“Most of the people, they pick up mushrooms and then they can earn some extra money by selling them,” Gnytka said.
But he said he doesn’t know anyone personally whose sole income comes from picking mushrooms — most of the foragers he knows who sell have some sort of additional income stream.
Gnytka does, too. In addition to Green Ukraine, he also runs a transport company. And while in quarantine, he developed a program that helps people find out if they’re being scammed by internet dating websites. That venture, he says, is doing well.
“You have to be flexible in this life,” said Gnytka, who has two young daughters.
“When tourism is zero, you have to think about what to do next.”