Father drove our orange Russian-made Lada across the rickety one-way bridge over a spring and parked it in the meadow along the dirt road, making sure there was enough room for a horse-drawn carriage or a tractor to squeeze by. My cousin, Mira, and I unloaded our backpacks and Father carried the checkered bag full of Mother’s preserves, coffee, š¡ljivovica*, and sugar cubes.
It was the summer after sixth grade and we were embarking on an adventure, getting ready to spend a month with a family so remotely related to ours that only in Serbia could they be counted as kin. I could barely hide my excitement and anxiety, bringing forth my favorite passages from “Heidi”, as we left the familiar world of concrete and steel, and entered the mysterious kingdom of secluded rural living. We hiked uphill for about an hour, surrounded by the silence of a perfect summer morning interrupted only by an occasional chirping chorus of cicadas and the shriek of some unfamiliar bird.
I admired Father as he led us skillfully through the thickets and across the streams. I was always forgetting that he grew up in those mountains before he became an urban surgeon. As we approached the last plateau, a cluster of buildings came into view, all whitewashed walls and dark, wooden roofs. The dogs announced our arrival and our relatives came down to meet us. I did not know any of them and my heart cramped, overwhelmed by shyness. The elderly matriarch hugged me gently and my head rested on her soft bosom which smelled like grass, freshly baked bread, and milk, while her rough fingers brushed the strands of hair that hid my forehead. Her smile was warm and I felt as if I had known her for centuries.
We hugged and kissed everybody that came down to greet us. They escorted us as we climbed the last hundred yards to the main house. The women moved around in a synchronized dance, adding the finishing touches to the lunch. The men claimed the rustic wooden table hidden from the sun’s fiery touch by the cool shade of an ancient beech tree, and loudly toasted each other with tiny glasses filled with plum brandy. Mira and I decided to stay inside, cowering in the corner. Our cousin Boško was twelve, just like us, and he reluctantly joined us at the table. His sister Maja, a couple of years older, brought glasses of fresh milk for all of us, and left to help her mother and grandmother in the kitchen.
Unable to overcome the awkwardness of the moment, the three of us attacked the milk with ferocity, not looking up, pretending to concentrate on drinking. When we were done, we put our glasses down and shyly raised our glances upward, knowing that somebody would have to start the small talk, and dreading it. We looked at each other and our shoulders began to tremble as we started giggling. We all had thick, white, milk moustaches from fervently diving into our glasses, trying to drown the shyness. Pretty soon we were laughing uncontrollably, tears streaming down our faces, the wall between us shattered as we pointed at each other and at the same time attempted to wipe our mouths. The shards of ice were expelled from our hearts**, and we knew that summer would bring us together.
The women ushered us out and we joined the men at the table underneath the tree. It was lunch time. All of a sudden, we realized we were ravenous from the long hike as our eyes followed each plate with anticipation. Warm bread was placed in the middle, flanked by dishes full of home-made cheese and kajmak; home-cured bacon, sausage, and pršuta***; sweet tomatoes sprinkled with salt and paired with diced onion; and hard-boiled eggs with bright orange yolks collected that morning from the chicken coop.
Silence descended and only grunts and satisfied sighs were heard. Some dishes were moved around to accommodate the additional plates of roasted chicken and new potatoes, accompanied by grilled peppers served with garlic and a vinaigrette. As if it were an afterthought, Maja brought a platter of bright orange mushrooms sauteed with onions and bacon, and it sat to the side, unassuming and modest, not eager to detract from the allure of animal protein.
I did not know what I was eating, but I certainly knew that I loved it. My first taste of chanterelles was enough to mark me for life. Finding out that my cousins foraged for the mushrooms made their earthy flavor even more appealing. When we were done, we did not wait for the adults to finish. We rose from the table filled with energy and ready to explore this beautiful, wondrous world opening in front of us.
Just like our cousins, we got up every day at sunrise and took the cows to graze, running after them with a huge slab of freshly baked bread and kajmak. We rode the sled down the grassy slopes, tumbling at times, and getting our knees scraped. We picked wild flowers, pressed them, and made a herbarium. We spent about fifteen minutes gathering hay into tall stacks, only to abandon the difficult task and tend to the orphaned baby birds we found in a nest. We sat in the shade playing with Barbies while our cousins helped with the farm chores. We went foraging for chanterelles, skipping over the streams, holding onto the slim tree-trunks as we hiked uphill, yelling in excitement at every bright-orange cluster we spied.
I have not had fresh chanterelles since the summer of 1976. I cannot buy the puny, dessicated specimens available at the stores when I know that forests are full of beautiful, fresh mushrooms waiting to be picked. One of these days I’ll find myself in the woods looking again for the clusters of orange fungi. In the meantime, I satisfy my hunger with cultivated mushrooms while I continue to dream of the wild ones.
*Šljivovica (slivovitz) is Serbian plum brandy
**This is a reference to the Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Snow Queen.
***Pršuta is Serbian cured and smoked pork loin, extremely flavorful and addictive.