‘What are you doing today?’
Let’s go mushroom picking.’
Our guide for the day, Latvian blogger Zane Enina of Mugursoma.lv fame tells me that this is a pretty common conversation amongst Latvians during Autumn.
I wonder immediately if they are enough mushrooms for every Latvian to go mushroom picking.
‘50% of Latvia is covered by forests. There are always enough mushrooms for everyone. Plus a whole lot of space to get lost in and escape reality.’
We’re rolling through an open road about 100 kms outside of Riga. We’re surrounded by dense forests and an immense blanket of silence. We’ve been driving for almost 20 minutes from Zane’s house in Vangazi and there’s been nothing but green forests and deep blue skies.
I’m pretty excited about the idea of foraging for food. It has been one of those skills I’ve been always curious to learn more about. My father grew up in a rural part of India where nature’s bounty was rich. The garden of the house he grew up in was more like a jungle. You could find everything here from the freshest (hottest) green chillies, sweetest bananas, mangos, gourd, pumpkin-you name it. The soil was rich and practically anything you stuck anything in the ground, it would grow. No need for pesticides. My father’s knowledge of horticulture and the fruits of nature is very intimate and rich. Even though he now lives in Kolkata, a far cry from the beautiful countryside of his childhood home, he comes alive and is in his element in our local bazaar in Kolkata where come any season, you’ll find such a rich range of produce. If there’s a vegetable or herb he’s not sure of, he’ll start nibbling it like a rabbit and be able to deduce what it is in a flash. He’s like the Valentine Warner of India, my dad.
Years on. …watching Zane examining the mushrooms with that same almost animal instinct that my father has, suddenly brought a flood of childhood memories back. I wish I could magically transport my father especially for this experience.
‘In the autumn we can’t just enjoy nature and walk through the woods-we’re always on the lookout for mushrooms. Even when driving our cars through the woods, we’re always looking out for mushrooms. You could call it ‘carmushroaming.’
We’ve arrived in Zane’s secret patch where she often finds mushrooms. There are few more furiously guarded secrets than a Latvian’s wild mushroom patch.
Sadly, there are a few signs of mushrooms today. The unseasonably dry weather and lack of rain has meant a less than average harvest of wild mushrooms.
After the hours of anticipation, initially we feel a wave of anxiousness and frustration sweep over as we eagerly scan the forest.
Maybe we were feeing a bit MAD. Ok. Not ‘mad’ in the traditional sense of the word but actually MAD, which stands for Mushroom Absence Disorder which is caused as the name suggests, by an absence of fungoid fun, which in turn triggers symptoms including depression, anger and feelings of persecution. Apparently it triggers flu-like symptoms!
As we start experiencing the mild onset of MADness suddenly there is shriek of happiness from Sunmee. Sunmee was Zane’s South Korean friend who had come to visit her in Latvia.
Sunmee has struck gold with a new variety of mushroom-she holds up gleefully a beautiful egg yolk yellow chanterelle with wavy gill-like ridges. A few steps right and forward we discover another heap of chanterelles. Mushrooms are like lovers and buses in life-you have to wait a bit and then they arrive in one sharp burst. With a deft cut with our pocket knives we pluck them out of the ground.
Sunmee’s wooden basket starts filling up. She looks pretty chuffed with her harvest and the experience so far.
‘Our mountains and landscapes in South Korea are different-everywhere is crowded, even on a 7 day hike. Coming to Latvia with its pure nature and not even a person in sight..it is a pretty special experience for me.’
Soon we discover another huge patch of mushrooms. My key concern is trying to figure out which ones are poisonous and which ones are edible.
Every bump in this patch of forest floor is red and looks alluringly dodgy to me but it turns out to be harmless-the popular red fringed russulas. I spot nearby a few more harmless looking white mushrooms which to my horror later turns out to be one of the rare poisonous varieties!
Zane turns the offender upside down and points to the telltale sign that will immediately tell if the mushroom is poisonous or not-a skirt or ring on the stem alongside with white gills are often the telltale signs of a poisonous mushroom. This rule does not apply to all mushrooms and you may be missing out on some good edible fungi but it means you will be avoiding the deadly members of the Amanita family.
The further we drift into the forest, the more surreal the landscape. We come to a patch of much smaller trees with leaner, algae green branches. A thick mist suddenly descends over us. Far in the distance we can see a patch of blue.
Zane’s eyes are still firmly on the ground. Few more steps and suddenly we find ourselves in a sea of deliciously fruity blueberries and cranberries. We forage to our hearts delight. The mist clears as suddenly as it appeared and the sun pops out. I don’t know whether it was the naked empty swathes of lush green forestland or the berries but I felt strangely delirious. Maybe I was experiencing the onset of a different form of MAD.
I started singing an adapted version of the Beatles classic ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’
I think it was a moment of pure joy. Just me and nature, its ripe delicious fruits and surrounded by new found friends.
I could see now why foraging is a national sport, an obsession in Latvia.
I love how it brings families and friends together. How it releases you from your everyday strain and your caged thoughts. We live in a world where we’re constantly ‘on’. There’s no time to pause, for reflection or to process life. So its always great to have these moments of life when we go kind of revert to our primitive state, back to nature, foraging for our food in the wild forests. Just me, the sound of wind flickering past the branches and the vast emptiness of the wilderness around me.
As we stepped into the car to cook up our vast haul of mushrooms, I feel a sense of loss and sadness to say goodbye to the forest with all its untold, bountiful treasures… it’s warm, protective blanket of silence which kind of sucks in all our weird and wonderful thoughts, stresses and strains.
Autumn will never be the same again. Nor will every wild forest I walk through from now. I’ll be dreaming of seeing wild mushrooms and maybe feeling a bit MAD, wishing I was roaming free and indeed feeling very glad in the wild forests of Latvia.
Paldies to Zane Enina for a wonderful day that will never forget. Plus big hug to Sunmee-safe travels across Europe. Paldies also to Lelde Benke and Magnetic Latvia (LIAA) for bringing me and Sabrina to Latvia and sharing your beautiful country with us.
More stories from our Latvia adventure to follow!