Anyone who is privileged enough to be friends with a Latvian or two on Facebook may have noticed that over the past month, the usual slew of cringe-inducing baby photos, screaming goat videos and ice-bucket mishaps were replaced by unfathomable mountains of mushrooms, hand-picked, fresh and displayed in various assortments, next to proud pickers with grins to rival the Cheshire Cat.
“Oh, what light reprieve!” one might exclaim, delighting in the fact their social stream had finally produced something more interesting than yet another Buzfeed list claiming “Twenty incredible reasons why pyjamas are better than your mum!” or “This man ate ten pebbles! You won’t believe what happened next!!”
Latvia’s forests are abundant, both in size (about 2.7 million hectares) and in bounty. They line a huge proportion of our country’s roads and coastlines and are full to the brim with spruce and pine trees, bilberries, lingonberries, hordes of man-eating insects and of course, a mushroom or two.
Considering the amount I’ve been seeing in pictures this year, it would come as a great surprise to me to find that there were indeed any mushrooms left in the Latvian forests. I’m certain most of them are sitting shivering in fridges and basements around the country, having been snapped up by spore-crazed “shroomers”.
Latvians are bonkers about mushrooms. It’s a national obsession. There is barely a single stretch of forest untouched by foragers come late summer and autumn. You can’t walk for longer than a minute or two in any direction without bumping into people carrying baskets and knives, wearing picking gear, complete with straw hats creeping about like Nosferatu on his day off.
Believe it or not, mushrooming is, in fact, one of the most popular open-air pastimes among Latvians. (I guess drinking beer wasn’t one of the considerations.) It’s especially favoured among older generations, since it’s fairly low-energy, it’s free food for those with less income and many will tell you that even a poor crop will at least get you out for a walk in the forest. If you find yourself with an abundance, you can even sell them at the market for a bit of extra cash.
300 of the 1,100 cap mushroom species are edible (and 30 poisonous), and although not everyone knows them all, pickers tend to recognise and pick around 20 to 30 species.
Here are a few species that you’re likely to encounter and can most definitely eat without worrying about hallucinogenic side effects or a fatal outcome:
Notably pricey in other countries, these wee meaty yellow-orange funnel shaped mushrooms look a bit like a melted candle and they tend to come in groups, so once you find one, you’re sure to get a few more in the vicinity. One reason the Chanterelle is such a prized mushroom is that worms turn their noses up at it. No wriggly extras in your wild mushroom risotto with these ones! Truly vegetarian friendly. Of course, Latvians wouldn’t be Latvians without finding at least one thing to complain about – Chanterelles are a nightmare to rid of all the forest gunk.
Baravika (Boletus Edulis/Porcini)
Held in high regard by many, these plump little chaps are identified by large brown caps, with tubes rather than gills underneath and are notably difficult to cultivate. Referred to as “the king of mushrooms” south of the Latvian border, they pack a strong flavour, and a good one can get the picker a shower of compliments and oohs and aahs. The boletus can be a bit of a lone ranger, (although some types like the sviesta beka or butter boletus grow in groups), but once you find them they’re great for drying.
One of the most common mushrooms to be found in the Latvian forest, the poor things tend to be discriminated against come September because they’re “not good enough” or not as full of flavour as the boletus or porcini. Russula are great mushrooms for marinating if you can pick enough of the tiny ones Latvians lovingly call podiņi or little pots.
So you’ve scoured the forest, and gathered up a few mushrooms in your wee basket. You’ve got home, checked yourself over for ticks, cleaned and de-gunked the mushrooms, what now? Well, how about starting with a classic mushroom sauce?
Classic Latvian mushroom sauce recipe
- Chopped wild mushrooms (depending on the type, boil in advance if required)
- Ham (optional)
- Sweet or sour cream
- Salt and pepper to taste
Dice and fry the onion, add the mushrooms and ham, mix and heat for a few minutes.
Add a generous dollop of sweet or sour cream depending on your preference, and season to taste.
Mix thoroughly and ensure the cream is warm. Serve the sauce with boiled spuds (potatoes), and hey presto, you’re getting more and more Latvian by the second!
Have you got any good recipes, or pictures of your mushroom haul from this year? Be sure to share it with us in the comments below.