Päivi said to me, “Go on, pick it.” I murmured, “I’m afraid,” not knowing exactly what I was saying. Perhaps it was such a gorgeous shape and royal presence — a perfect sculpture by Mother Nature — that I was afraid to touch the mushroom, let alone remove it from Earth. Päivi kindly said, “I will show you.” I pushed my fingers into the ground reaching the bottom of the stem and gently pulled it out. I shaved the soiled area around the bottom with a knife, being mindful not to take any more flesh than I needed to. I sliced it vertically in halves just like the way expert Finnish foragers had done in front of me many times before. Clean interiors. No worms nor bite marks. What a beauty. I placed the halves in the basket like laying down a new born baby in a bassinet.
A few minutes earlier, Päivi, the “Mushroom Queen” Martat, pointed to a prominent looking mushroom standing exposed all by itself on the pine needle, twig laden ground. A chubby brown cap (two-inch diameter) and stubby beige stem. A porcini (Boletus edulis)! A trophy mushroom, especially in Italy, for its aroma, dense texture and earthy rich flavor. The porcini stood there as if to say, “I am here!” I just stared at its beauty and grandiose stature.
The Martat Organization is a Finnish non-profit-home economics organization founded in 1899 to promote well-being and quality of life in the home. North Karelian Martat can help you discover the beauties and wild-edibles of the region, and teach you how to cook/use them in your dishes.
On this late Summer day, Päivi, a member of North Karelian Martat was taking me, Katja and Jenny, two Martat executives to a mushroom foraging excursion in forests near Kitee, her hometown of 10,000 people, about 70 km (43 miles) south of Joensuu, the municipal capital of North Karelia. North Karelia, with the total area of 21,585 km² (8,334 square miles), about 400 km (250 miles) northeast of Finnish capital Helsinki, is a beautiful region in Eastern Finland, 70 % of which is pristine forests, has about 2,000 lakes filled with fish, rustic charms, a mystic power of Nature, and sparsely populated villages.
As soon as we walked into the dense forest, Päivi pointed to a mushroom a few feet away. I marveled how she could see it camouflaged in the environment. She approached and pricked the small reddish brown mushroom with about one inch diameter cap from the ground. She neatly sliced off the bottom of the stem covered with soil using a mushroom knife, dropped the tip, brushed off dirt and plant specks from the cap with the brush attached to the other end of the knife handle. She closely examined the mushroom and announced, “This is a curry milk cap.” She slit the gills. White liquid dotted the incision. “See, milk,” Päivi said. I knew about this treasured mushroom. A chef-turned-food-journalist in Helsinki taught me a year ago how a tiny amount of dried little bits of this mushroom could add an amazing curry aroma to a dish, hence the name. Päivi placed the mushroom in her basket. I noticed more on the ground. I picked up one and asked, “Is this a curry milk cap too?” Päivi said, “Yes.” Hooray! Now I could guess a small percentage of what I find! The number one, golden rule of foragers is “Pick and eat only what you can identify 100% for sure.” Or you may be poisoned. So for me, I will not forage alone for many years to come.
Päivi stopped and picked up a medium sized green-grayish mushroom with zigzag edges around the cap. “This is good,” she said. “This is a hapero (Russula, Russula emetica).” She cleaned it and put it into the basket. I thought to myself, “I could never guess that would be a good mushroom (because the colors looked moldy — Sorry, Hapero!)”
Päivi moved briskly through the forest focusing on spotting ‘good’ mushrooms. I picked two promising mushrooms, caught up with her, and asked, “How about these?” She glanced and quickly said, “No. Not good.” I tossed them to the ground. Päivi added, “They’re not poisonous. But they’re not good. We don’t eat it.”
She picked another mushroom, “This is a milk cap.” I asked, “A regular one?” “Yes.” She cleaned it and put it into a plastic bag in the basket. She was separating them from others, as she’d first boil them in water for 10 minutes to rid of their tartness.
I found more curry milk caps hidden under ferns and leaves around mossy rocks. I showed them to Päivi and she nodded. I cleaned them and placed them in the basket. I felt proud that I was getting good at it, though I still needed an expert to verify. I picked a mushroom and asked, “Is this a milk cap?” Päivi, “Yes, but it’s not a good one.” She added, “It’s so small.” I repeated, “It’s small … ok,” I tossed it, puzzled.
For some mushrooms like chanterelles, small was good because they were packed with flavors. I picked two mushrooms and asked, “These are no good, right?” Päivi perked up. “Not this one, but this one is very good!” pointing to a very dark brown mushroom. “It’s a nokirousku (chocolate milky mushroom in English. Lactarius lignyotus)!” she said excitedly. A small, 3/4 - one inch diameter, very dark brown cap with white gills and a long skinny dark brown stem. I saw more of the same. I picked them, and asked, “Are they good?” “Yes,” she said. “This one too?” I asked. Päivi said, “Yes. Yes, these are very good. They’re milk caps but they can go directly into a pan.” (She meant no need to boil like regular milk caps.) I mumbled, “You never know which ones are good …..”
She took a few steps, bent down and picked another. “This is also a hapero.” She sliced off the bottom of its stem, and looking at the cut section of the stem, said, “A very good one. See, no worms.” She sliced the stem and the cap vertically in exact halves. Yes, I saw that it was a clean beautiful mushroom. “You’re going to eat this,” she said, smiling.
Päivi said, “This one is a haaparousku (northern milk cap, Lactarius trivialis),” holding up a grayish purple cap mushroom of two inch diameter. It was quite exotic and beautiful. She added, “You need to cook this one” (for five minutes to rid its tartness).
Päivi picked a reddish cap mushroom, cleaned the stem, pealed the thin red skin, cut a small piece of white flesh and handed it to me. She sliced another piece and put it into her mouth. I put mine into my mouth, tasted it and immediately spat it out. “It’s so peppery!” We laughed.
I wondered in a thick forest with no trace of civilization. My boots squished an uneven cushiony carpet of moss and fallen leaves. My knees, legs and back were getting tender incidental workout. My eyes scanned magical expansive vegetations, layers of bright green moss- and whitish-gray reindeer lichen-covered rocks, one foot tall baby trees, fallen branches, twigs and leaves, ferns, low berry bushes, wild flowers and grasses, an ant hill, white birch trunks and dark brown aspen trunks soaring into the sky, some fallen trunks leaning on top of each other. Glittering lights streamed through leaves, brunches and tree trunks casting diagonal streaks and shadows in the forest. I inhaled moist piney vapors, listened to hushed conversations of wispy winds and birch leaves, and sensed my breathing synchronized with natures’ pulses. My physical, emotional and spiritual being was blended with the surroundings — completely. At such moments, the most profound bliss filled my body and soul. It was a mystical sensation that I had never known existed nor possible. And it is this sensation that kept bringing me back to North Karelian forests.
Back at the foraging with Martat, we also found small and medium sized chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius), another prized treasure from the forest. Päivi disappeared into the woods and came out with creamy white mushrooms with warped caps. She said, “They are vaaleaorakas (wood hedgehog or hedgehog mushroom, Hydnum repandum)! I was looking for these!” happily announcing her feat.
With our baskets filled with treasures from the forest, we headed to Sovintola, a handicraft and culture center, where Martat gathered for events in the town of Kesälahti, near Kitee. First, we sorted the foraged mushrooms on a large table. Päivi took us through the characteristics of each variety.
She then proceeded to slice and sautee several varieties of mushrooms with butter in a frying-pan. “This is the best way,” she told me as I looked over her shoulder. The aromas of heated butter and mushrooms filled the kitchen, my nostrils and my month. The mushroom flesh was getting golden brown, and the edges crusty. She flipped each slice expertly with two forks making sure not to over cook. Then it was lunch time: “Forest to Table!”
First, we sampled the pan-sauteed mushrooms we picked only two hours ago. My heart pitter-pattering, I pierced a piece with a fork and brought it carefully into my mouth. I contemplated its flavors, textures, aromas, and all the nuances in-between. I tasted the earth, rain drops, dried pine needles, mosses and above all, mother nature’s love. Everyone was quiet. We didn’t have to say anything.
Päivi, the forager-chef Martat, then served us porcini-cream soup garnished with dried slices of porcini. Heaven.
Next, Päivi served toasted rye bread topped with spruce tip pesto, followed by blocks of bread cheese (aka Finnish squeaky cheese in the US) with yellowfoot (Craterellus tubaeformis) jam, which might sound strange but totally delicious. For desserts, she brought out lingonberry-carrot Karelian pies and yellowfoot mushroom cookies, which were a perfect way to conclude our mushroom feast — all home-made except the cheese. This was the “wildest” meal of my life!