October – a chilly morning air filled with humidity. Not exactly what I was hoping for as we were going to be mushrooming all day with my friend Daniela. Nonetheless going to the forest always fills me with excitement and expectation – just a magical place to be, the forest. Hence I packed my car, got my thermostat with my sacred morning cafe latte and hit the road.
After picking Daniela up we drove from Helsinki to her mother’s summer place near Kotka. That is as detailed as I can get about our destination: nobody reveals a good mushroom place in Finland! You find a great location, you guard that information like a national treasure! Although many Finns either have a summer house of their own or access to one (either their relatives’ or friend’s or a shared one) it is not necessary. We have great many national parks and forests all over the country – even at close proximity to cities like Helsinki. From early on we are taught about jokamiehenoikeus which refers to everyone’s universal right to harvest and enjoy the great outdoors – this right extends to private land as well (as long as you don’t harm the environment, stick to harvesting only what grows wild and keep away from private yards). The stereotypical Finn just loves to spend time in “the bush”.
We are getting closer to our destination. Getting off the motorway we are welcomed by smaller, windy, gravel roads. Trees on both sides with strikingly dark trunks and leaves intensely colorful. The cold of October has turned them all kinds of yellow, orange and red. It is breathtakingly beautiful.
Mushrooming is popular in Finland
Mushrooming has it’s traditions in Finland but is not lost to the modern Finns either. Mostly the Finnish people pick only edible mushrooms but some also use mushrooms for dying (wool for example). Primarily the tradition is passed on from one generation to the next. In my case I used to pick berries with my mother (raspberries, blueberries, lingonberries) so I did have that tradition of harvesting but we rarely went mushrooming. Mushrooms I mostly taught myself as an adult. I bought books and studied. With mushrooms you want to be 100% sure you are picking only edible ones so I also joined a local group, Martat, that educates people about all things domestic – including mushrooming. I don’t have time to be an active Martta anymore but I did go on one mushrooming trip together with Martat once. Martat, among other groups, also organizes mushroom identification help for mushroom gatherers: You can take your mushrooms and consult with experts.
At a mushroom exhibition you can consult experts on mushroom identification.
On a good year you can have a good 200 types of mushrooms on display.
Photo: The Natural History Museum of Kuopio
Nowadays mushrooming has entered into social media as well. The Finnish Mycological Society has about 31 000 members in Facebook.
Its members use the forum to help identify harvest but also just to share the joy of having found something special – or a delicious recipe. Mostly people limit their harvesting to the 1-10 mushrooms they are familiar with.
Finns make good use of the harvest
The way in which we, the Finns, estimate the usability of mushrooms differs somewhat from other countries. Many mushrooms considered poisonous in other European countries are considered even excellent edible mushrooms after some preparation (often this means boiling the mushrooms until the possible bitterness or even toxins have been eliminated).
I guess the most radical example is False morel (Gyromitra esculenta) which is held in very high regard. Most fine dining restaurants offer it on their menus. Personally I would just be too scared to prepare it at home but I have eaten it in a restaurant. In Sweden for example it is not considered as an edible mushroom.
False morels (Gyromitra esculenta) are lethal but considered a delicacy after some preparation. They must be boiled twice for 5 minutes and rinsed thoroughly in between. Make sure you ventilate the kitchen properly due to the toxic fumes. Photos: wikipedia (left) and https://www.soppa365.fi/reseptit/kasvis-juhli-ja-nauti-kastikkeet-tahnat-ja-marinadit/korvasienikastike-parsaa (right).
From the forest to the table
Traditionally mushrooms have accompanied potatoes and fish or meat in the form of creamy sauces in the Finnish dining tables. Finns are known for consuming potatoes as a stable – much like Italians consume pasta or Asians consume rice. Mushroom sauces are quick and easy to prepare with garlic, onion and herbs. One of the newer, still quite marginal, trends has been to replace the cream with oat cream. Mushroom pies are also popular and delicious. During the summer you will typically witness big store-bought champignons filled with blue cheese and perhaps wrapped in bacon simmering on a grill. The use of pork with mushrooms is nothing new but blue cheese certainly wasn’t on the table 100 years ago.
Mushrooms are certainly one of the healthiest fast foods I know of. Sheep polypores (Albatrellus ovinus syn. Polyporus ovinus, Scutiger ovinus), Boletes (Boletaceae) and Parasol mushrooms (Macrolepiota procera) all make excellent stakes with a quick visit on a pan – as is or breaded.
Classic Chanterelle sauce
2 l cleaned chanterelles
4-5 dl cream or oat cream
Sautée the finely chopped onion in oil and/or butter.
Add the chopped mushrooms and garlic
Add salt and peppar and other seasoning to your liking – Finnish people don’t usually use soya sauce in their cooking but I find it works nicely with the sauce. However, you don’t want to cover the delicate taste of the chanterelles!
Add cream or oat cream
Garnish with finely chopped chives.
Serve with boiled potatoes (and fish or meat).
* If you want a thicker consistency for your sauce, you can use flower for thickening.
The traditions of the East and the West Fuse in Finland
Located at the border of East and West Finland’s culture and history have always reflected both Western and Eastern influences. This can be seen in the Finnish tradition of mushrooming as well. On the one hand we have had a tradition of mushrooming enter from Sweden where at the end of 1800’s the French Jean Baptiste Bernadotte became the king Karl Johan XIV and brought the French appreciation of mushrooms – especially chanterelles and boletes. On the other hand the strong tradition of mushrooming and especially the use of milk caps in Russia spread quite organically to Eastern Finland.
During the war Finland was forced to evacuate Karelia. The evacuated people were scattered all over the country spreading their traditions and fusing the two traditions in the country.
Finland is known for its forests and indeed they have served as a welcome addition to other sources of food during hard times presented by the two World Wars for instance. Today mushrooming is alive and well in modern Finland. This is not because of any scarceness of food (although mushrooming might provide a welcome deduction of the grocery bill for the lower income families) rather the appreciation of local and organic food as well spending time outdoors and passing on the tradition.
In Finland we have over 2000 types of mushrooms from which about 200 are edible. However Finnish Food Safety Authority has listed only 23 of them as suitable for sale. Our annual harvest has been estimated to be anywhere from 1,5 to 4 billion kilos out of which people harvest 2 to 4 million kilos. There is a conscious effort on the part of community colleges and various ngo’s to promote citizens’ knowledge of edible mushrooms and every autumn newscasts report on harvest estimates and how much of it is being left in the forests. For mushroom enthusiasts like myself it is not easy: You want to do your best to fully take advantage of the harvest but working full-time in the cities doesn’t leave much time for mushrooming.
Going mushrooming is like going on a treasure hunt. Even when you end up with slim pickings you have had a day in the calm of the forest, appreciating its beauty, breathing fresh air and losing all sense of time and hecticness of the city. Just an awesome way to relax and enjoy the outdoors. I and Daniela had an awesome harvest: 70 litres of mushrooms – mostly funnel chanterelles. Not bad!
Time to head home: happy and tired.