Do you ever say to yourself, “I just want to get away … I just want to take a nice long break from my hectic life of juggling and stressing over a crazy schedule, non-stop texting, terrible news on TV, streams of fragmented images and words delivered to me by social media, traffic noises, rush hours, and constant demands for my attention by people around me!”?
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. On one gorgeous August day (19°C/66°F) Maija and Kaarina, members of North Karelian District Martat guided me through the Kolvananuuro Nature Reserve in Eno, Kontiolahti, 35 km (22 miles) from Joensuu, the municipal capital of North Karelia, pointing to wild-edibles on the way.
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.
My guides of the day, Maija, a former biology teacher, and Kaarina were passionate about wild-edibles and eager to pass on their knowledge. When we arrived at the reserve, even before we left the parking lot, they began pointing out plants with detailed descriptions. A few steps into the forest, Maija bent down to pull out a tiny cream-colored mushroom (barely 1 cm/0.3 inch diameter). She brushed off small dirt clumps to reveal one little pine needle attached to the bottom of the stringy mushroom stem. She explained, “Each pine needle produces one mushroom. That’s why there are so many.” I looked down on the ground and noticed for the first time many creamy baby mushrooms dotting all over the carpet of fallen pine leaves.
Geographic formations in Kolvananuuro Gorge, unique to Finland, were created by volcanic activity and the last Ice Age 2.2-5 billion years ago. When the ice melted, the water washed away sand from the gorge walls, creating a sand delta over 9,000 years ago. There are 6.5 km (4 mile) hiking trails, so you can choose your route depending upon your desired ease/difficulty, length and time frame. We chose a relatively easy flat trail to a designated public campfire site, 2.1 km (1.3 miles) one way. I found the trails well marked and family-friendly.
On our leisurely hike, we saw varying vegetations from shady forests of pines, spruces, junipers, birches, alders and aspens, to swampy fields and bogs, and a pond adorned with water lilies. After few minutes of walking through a fern forested area, I heard the gurgling of glistening stream rushing down the grassy field. Maija said, “You can drink this water.” My eyes widened with disbelief and joy. Kaarina bent down by the stream, scooped a palmful of water and brought it to her mouth. I simply copied her. Oh Boy! The best tasting water. We filled our water bottles with the stream’s running water. I wondered what was wrong with city dwellers like myself who never imagined of finding running streams we can drink from in our backyard.
Soon we came upon wooden planks laid over swampy fields. Maija and Kaarina point to bright orange berries in the fields. “Lakka!” “Cloudberries!” They went to pick orange berries and handed them to me. I popped them in my mouth. As I chewed the berries, their tart sweet juices bursted in my mouth, and my teeth crunched seeds that are rich in Omega 6, Omega 3, Vitamin E, Vitamin A and plant sterols — all good for my health. How beautiful these orange berries looked dotting in the moist field. They didn’t look anything like the ones in plastic containers I saw at farmers’ markets in a town square. There were bright-bright-orange ones which I learned were not ripe yet. I learned that when the color became peachy orange evenly throughout a berry, and sepals protecting the berry faced downward, the berry was ripe.
When we came to the public campfire spot, our turning point, I asked the ladies why they come to the forest. Kaarina answered, “To lower blood pressure. For feeling great. Fresh air. To be together with people I love. And to sit by an open fire”, smiling and pointing to a family with three dogs sitting around the open fire roasting sausages. She continued, “I love that we are able to pick berries, and find other things in the forest we can eat.” I thought I knew what she meant. I felt a profound pleasure and satisfaction when I went foraging in wilderness. It felt like discovering a primal, survival skill I never knew I had, and was so proud to practice using. It was also a shocking realization of a fundamental truth that foods came from nature, not from stores. I loved the calming sensation of going back to that basic foundation of nature.
Kaarina continued, “And mostly I go to forests to have a relaxing time.” Maija added, “You feel all the senses: you see, smell, taste, hear, all these different senses. If you’re stressed, forests are the best place to come. It’s very good for brains … old brains (Laughs).” She continued, “Our history is in the forest. We have been in towns only for very short time.” Maija said, “Our souls are in the forest. Particularly, my soul,” and paused with deep thoughts in her eyes. I asked “Do you feel like this is home? Do you feel you come close to being a place where you truly belong?” Maija, without a beat, responded, “It’s My Church. Nature. Yes. This is our Church. Yes.” And she let out a delightful sigh, “Aah….”
At home that night, I rinsed a few leaves of Stone Bramble, a wild-edible plant we picked in a field, and steeped them in a pot of hot water, as Maija and Kaarina taught me right before we said goodbyes. In a quiet kitchen with a dimmed light, I sipped the fresh herb tea, so warm and calming. And soon I was ready for a long peaceful sleep.
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
To find events and courses at North Karelian Martat, visit: https://www.martat.fi/marttapiirit/pohjois-karjala/tapahtumakalenteri/
RECIPE: MARTAT’S SUMMER DANDELION SALAD
Serves 4 as side salad
5 dl (2 cups/ 2 lbs) young, fresh and tender dandelion leaves
5 dl (2 cups/ 2 lbs) leafy greens 2 oranges or 1 grapefruit
2 small red onions or 1 medium-sized yellow onion
½ dl (3½ tbsp/ 2 oz) fresh orange juice
½ dl (3½ tbsp/ 2 oz) fresh lemon juice
1 crushed garlic clove
¼ tsp dried herbs (onion, basil, thyme, marjoram, salt)
¼ tsp white pepper
1 tbsp liquid honey
1. Pick some young dandelion leaves with smooth edges which have grown in shaded place. Young leaves with smooth edges taste mild while grown leaves with zig-zaggy edges are tough and bitter.
2. Rinse the dandelion leaves and tap them dry with kitchen paper or towel.
3. Cut/tear the leafy greens into bite sizes.
4. Peel the oranges/grapefruit and slice them.
5. Chop the onions.
6. Put all ingredients in to a salad bowl.
7. Blend the spices and honey with orange and lemon juice.
8. Pour the dressing on the salad and let rest for couple of minutes. Serve immediately.