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The best things in life are free … but where are they?

From amber fishing in the Baltic to mushroom hunting in Russia, there’s lots of stuff that doesn’t cost a penny

Mushrooms in Russia

In Russia, mushroom picking is called the “quiet hunt” and it has a ritual all its own. From late spring through to autumn, the high season for mycophiles, Russians fan out into the forests in search of fresh air, solitude and fungi to fill their wicker baskets. Should you see Ladas and Range Rovers abandoned roadside after a downpour, do not be alarmed: it is just mushroom season, not the zombie apocalypse.

The prey depends on the season: morels in spring, then pine boletes, broad milkcaps, orange chanterelles and the prized boroviki, the porcinis or penny buns that crown the season before the first snowfalls.

Yes, Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy wrote about mushroom hunts. But for a more hallucinogenic offering, turn to the Bolshevik functionary Alexander Tolstoy, who wrote a fairytale about talking mushrooms complaining how painful it is to be eaten, trampling a poisonous mukhomor and then shoving their way into the mouths of two children with the cry “All right, kids, open up!”

Ivanovo picking mushrooms in the forest
The ‘quiet hunt’ for mushrooms in the Ivanovo region of Russia. Photograph: Vladimir Smirnov/Getty Images

Soviet labour unions sometimes rented out buses to send factory workers off for a day of mushroom picking as a kind of teambuilding exercise. But the quiet hunt is really about leaving everything behind – our troubles, our devices, and often our loved ones – and communing with forests of birch and pine until we emerge again, our burden a little lighter.

Well, most of us emerge. Each year, dozens of Russians go missing and only stumble out weeks later in a kind of trance state. Others become so hopelessly lost that they are never found at all.

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