Do you ever say, “Please, just give me peace and quiet!” in your rush-rush-rush daily life? Or do you ever go on a vacation, come home exhausted, and say, “I need another vacation”?
If your answer is yes, come to North Karelia, a beautiful region in Eastern Finland, filled with pristine forests, thousands of clear water lakes, rustic charm, the mystic power of Nature, and sparsely populated villages. And feel the tension and stress gradually melt away from your head, shoulders, muscles, and spirit.
And learn to make superfood berry dishes with a local member of North Karelian District Martat. Go home with your happy tummy filled with delicious, healthy foods. Martat is a Finnish non-profit-home economics organization founded in 1899 to promote well-being and quality of life in the home. Martat can help you discover the beauties and wild-edibles of the region, and teach you how to cook/use them in your delicious and nutrition-rich dishes.
Getting out of a car in front of a Martat member Päivi’s house in the Village of Kinahmo in North Karelia, I almost stepped into a rich dark soft soil thick with growing onions. I was standing on the edge of a small garden where Päivi grew vegetables and berries for her family. On the other side of the car, several milking cows were idyllically grazing. Katja, Marta Executive who had arranged this field trip and drove me there, quickly disappeared behind a tall vegetable bush and came back out with a fistful of young tender peas for me to taste. Sweet fresh flavors bursted in my mouth while I chewed soft-crunchy pods. I walked around the garden and found a dense raspberry bush. I spotted ripe berries hanging on branches and gently pulled one between my fingers. Pop! Raspberry juice filled my mouth.
Päivi and her sister-in-law Raili, also a Martat, took Katja and me to a nearby forest to pick bilberries, European native related to North American blueberries. We drove a few minutes in a country landscape. Päivi pulled the car on a dirt road running through the forest. As soon as we got out of the car, Päivi and Raili started marching into the thick forest — no trails nor markers — as if in a trance, scooping berries from low bushes with a berry-picker. I followed them into the forest and looked around. Bilberries everywhere! I bent down, picked a couple of berries and threw them into my mouth.
Heaven. I then started to pick more with a berry-picker, a small container with a rake at the opening for easy berry picking and a handle for holding. Päivi came over and said, “Hold the bottom of the branches with your left hand like this, then scoop berries with the picker like this,” gesturing the move. We briskly swept the area. Päivi marched away, scooping more berries. I was one with the berries, or the act of picking them. I scooped berries, took a few steps, scooped more berries, took a few more steps and scooped more berries. I could do this all day, I thought to myself. I heard nothing except the bottoms of my water-proof pants rustling the low bushes and my hiking boots walking on a soft cushiony ground covered with moss, ferns, fallen leaves and branches. I enjoyed every sensation I felt all over my feet, legs and back, as I slowly walked on the most luxurious carpet Nature rolled out for me. I thought of nothing except bilberries and scooping.
I straightened my back. As far as I could see there was nobody but us in this thick forest. I saw Katja and Päivi quietly and single-mindedly scooping berries 10 - 15 yards away in the hushed forest that seemed to go on forever. I didn’t see Raili. She was somewhere in the woods. The spirits of wild-edibles and forests quietly and gently possessed each one of us. After spending some time in Finnish forests, I came to realize that fairytales I had read when I was a child were not quite fairytales, but somehow real. I realized that J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbits were not far fetched. As a matter of fact, The Kalevala, a 19th-century work of epic poetry compiled by Elias Lönnrot from Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology, thought to be one of the most significant works of Finnish literature, and the Finnish psyche, deeply influenced Tolkien’s works. If I came across with a group of fairies in this thick enchanted forest, I would not have been surprised. Rather I would have understood. I felt that even if I could not see them, they were there, watching over us.
In no time our pickers were full. We emptied the bilberries mingled with a few leaves and pine needles from the pickers into foraging baskets. I stared at the rich gifts from nature. I felt such gratitude and awe.
We know by now that berries bring huge health benefits jam-packed in those small morsels. Research has shown they are packed with nutrients, and they are linked to lower risks of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, second type diabetes, aging-related lung function, inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease, and overweight. So, going to a forest to forage berries has triple health benefits: physical, mental and spiritual.
Back at Päivi’s home, the Martats showed me how to make berry juice, bilberry soup and lingonberry porridge. Drinking tea, and enjoying a home-made berry pie, Karelian pies, artisanal cheese made by their neighbor, and fresh berries, I asked the ladies what Nature — gardens, mushrooms, berries and forests — mean to them.
Päivi answered, “It’s nice to go to a forest. For fresh air. And it’s relaxing. I walk my dog in the morning, and she loves to run in the forest.” She added, “I like to have my vegetables from my garden. I like knowing where they come from.”
Päivi’s mother Maire, a long-time Martat in her 80s, with shiny full silver hair and glowing facial skin, said, “I started to forage mushrooms when I was young — about 5 years old with my aunt and grandmother.” So far, everyone I met in Finland who forages and fishes told me that they learned the skills from their family growing up. For people like me, Martat comes to rescue. Maire said beaming,“One year we had very good months for mushrooms. My husband and I were in woods picking mushrooms for two and half months.” She smiled and said, “I feel a huge joy in a forest.”
Päivi added, “Foraging in forests heals your soul. Why? Quietness is important. I need to be quiet, to be by myself, and to be only with my own head. I need to be alone.” Asked to elaborate on “quietness”, Päivi explained, “In working life, one needs to be social, go to meetings and talk and so on. After a long day at the office, you need your time to have space, quietness, no other people, nor noises. The quietness gives you the energy to go back to work.” Raili chimed in, “Yes, you solve your problems while in the woods.” Päivi said, “After a 15 minute walk in a forest, your head is clear.”
I asked looking around the table, “Isn’t it universal? That everyone needs quietness?” Päivi hesitated, “I don’t know. So many people live in cities …..” Then, Katja said, “They just don’t know what they’re missing.” We all looked at each other in a quiet agreement.
To arrange a custom foraging trip and cooking course with North Karelian Martat, please contact:
Pohjois-Karjalan Martat ry (North Karelia Martha District)
Koskikatu 5-7 80100 Joensuu
tel. 050 448 1125
email. email@example.com https://www.martat.fi/pohjois-karjala
To find events and courses at North Karelian Martat, visit: https://www.martat.fi/marttapiirit/pohjois-karjala/tapahtumakalenteri/
RECIPE: MARTAT MAIRE’S LINGONBERRY PORRIDGE
Finns eat lots of porridge for breakfast, desserts and snacks. When children come home from school, they go straight to a fridge and serve themselves some porridge as an afternoon snack. It’s a Finnish tradition.
10 dl (1 quart) water
4.5 dl (2 US cups / 1 lb 8 oz) Lingonberries
1.5 dl (0.6 US cup / 3.5 oz) semolina flour
1 ld (0.4 US cup / 2.8 oz) sugar (optional)
1. In a saucepan boil the water.
2. Add the lingonberries to the boiling water, and cook for xx minutes.
3. Add the semolina and whisk to make it foamy.
4. Add sugar, if you are using.
5. Serve a ladleful of the porridge in a small bowl. Serve hot.
6. Let each diner drizzle milk and pinch of sugar.
Store in a fridge for 2-3 days. After refrigerated, serve cold.
Photos: Päivi Juice Making Process
Photo: Home-made Karelian Pie
Photo: Vegetable Garden Peas
Raspberry on a branch