Foraging in Forests: A Latvian Love for Mushrooms

“I really want a garden.”

Lelde steps carefully between the brambles and blueberry bushes, a red handled knife in her hand. She is looking for mushrooms.

Inspecting leaves in a Latvian forest

I don’t know the layout of this forest, but Lelde seemingly does. She follows an invisible path between fir trees and pines, tracking her way across springy mounds of bright green moss and clusters of tiny acorns. Beside my hiking boots, large ants scurry through the mulch that has fallen from the trees towering above us.

Focused on the task at hand, we don’t talk much. Heads bent down towards the ground, eyes scanning the base of trees and the underside of low lying greenery, we watch for flashes of burnt orange and woody yellow.

The leaves move as a gentle wind blows; a soft rustling that I can barely hear.

“I love that sound…” Lelde says.

Green trees in a Latvian forest

The importance of mushrooms in Latvia

Mushrooming is a Latvian obsession. Every weekend from late August to mid October, foragers descend upon the country’s forests with their woven baskets and pocket knives to search out the best specimens that hide in the foliage; twisted golden chanterelles, fat domed porcinis and fringed russulas.

Mostly, the mushrooms are collected for cooking, canning, and eating, but the activity of foraging in itself is also a bonding exercise amongst family and friends, and a chance to enjoy the natural landscape of Latvia together.

Many Latvians have their own secret spots for where to find the best mushrooms, too – but because not every mushroom you find is actually edible, it’s worth going foraging with somebody who knows their fungi.

A colourful russula mushroom, Latvia

When Lelde first suggested we go foraging for mushrooms during my stay in Latvia, my answer was an unequivocal yes. At that time, I was  preparing myself to walk through Spain for weeks on end; even if a few hours exploring a Latvian forest wasn’t exactly hardcore training, it would still take me out of the urban and into the countryside.

Not to mention embarking on an activity in which I had absolutely zero experience.

Preparing for a mushroom hunting expedition

Yet however keen I was to go mushrooming, I was also slightly nervous. Not because of eating a poisonous fungus or getting myself lost in a Latvian forest (although the latter was definitely likely, in hindsight) – but because of something altogether unknown to me.

Ticks.

Trees and sky, Latvia

As someone who grew up in a city, I know next to nothing about ticks. Somehow on all my travels I’ve never encountered one – and I’ve certainly never removed one that’s burrowed itself into my own skin.

Before I came to Latvia, Lelde had mentioned that tick-borne encephalitis was occasionally an issue. She’d suggested that I look into getting vaccinated but I hadn’t got round to it – yet when we clambered out of Lelde’s car, wicker baskets and mushroom-cutting knives in hand, I realised there was a very real possibility of getting bitten by a tick.

But the mushrooms were still calling to me. So I gripped the cuffs of my jumper sleeves more firmly in my fists, checked the hems of my trousers were tucked into my socks, and strode off into the forest, Lelde leading the way.

Walking through a Latvian pine forest

What’s it like inside a Latvian forest?

Brought up in Riga, Latvia’s capital, Lelde’s parents still brought her back to the countryside and her grandparents house most weekends when she was growing up. Now, she equates the pine forests of rural Latvia with familiarity, and visits every chance she gets.

Although I didn’t feel that same sense of keen awareness for where we were, the magic of this landscape was undeniable.

The way the light spilled through trunks and branches, splintering into beams. The utter deadening of sound, despite the thin stretch of highway running mere metres away.

The countless different shades of green, everywhere I looked.

Fir tree cobwebs in Latvia

My earlier plan had been solely focused on looking for mushrooms, but it was difficult to avoid noticing the details of the forest instead. Pretty soon, I was lost in cobwebs and wildflowers, the rough feel of peeling bark against my fingertips.

And then I found the blueberry patch.

Blueberry plants in Latvia

Picking blueberries in Latvia

A handful of blueberries

The sweetly sharp explosion of flavour on my tongue was unexpected, the multitude of berries equally so, and I fell behind as my hands grew full with the tiny purple things.

I also got rather keen on photographing said handfuls.

But eventually, purple stained and happy, I hurried after Lelde who’d spotted a number of mushroom specimens hiding in the undergrowth amongst the clovers.

She was back on the mushroom hunt.

A mushroom in Latvian forest

Chanterelle mushrooms in a Latvian forest

Picking chanterelle mushrooms in Latvia

Discovering a love for foraging

When I was a child, I used to pick the blackberries that grew amongst the brambles at the bottom of my garden. My dad has recently planted an apple tree there, in memory of my mum; we joke about how long it will take before he can make a crumble purely from the fruits that grow outside our house.

I wasn’t really raised with the understanding of how plentiful the natural world can be beyond the confines of my familiar, homely, occasionally wild-blackberry-filled space. And for that, I’m somewhat jealous of the Latvian way of life; the fact that families have a history of coming together with their wicker baskets and their mushroom knives, ready to explore the quiet of the forest.

Long may it continue.

A basket of mushrooms in a Latvian forest

This was my first time foraging and I’d love to do it again somewhere else! Have you ever gone foraging for mushrooms in Latvia, or another country? How about foraging in general? 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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19 Responses to Foraging in Forests: A Latvian Love for Mushrooms

  1. Polly October 20, 2015 at 1:02 pm #

    I can’t believe I lived in Russia for five years and never did this! The Eastern Europeans are SO into this and I love the concept of foraging – with someone who knows what they’re doing, of course!

    • Flora October 24, 2015 at 6:48 am #

      I can imagine it’s pretty popular in Russia, Polly – maybe you’ll just have to head back and try it :p

  2. Jenia October 20, 2015 at 6:07 pm #

    I LOVE foraging for mushrooms. Growing up in Russia, the cult of mushroom eating was strong — mushrooms soups, stews, fries, marinades, and salted mushrooms are still my favorite thing in the world to eat. But the foraging — now, that is something I had only done as a child, and didn’t seem to have retained much knowledge of what to look for. Thank you for the lovely photos of your expedition, not i am longing to be out in the woods!

    • Flora October 24, 2015 at 6:49 am #

      I would have loved to grow up doing this, Jenia! Mushrooms have never been my most favourite food but I like them a lot more now..!

  3. Nick October 20, 2015 at 11:52 pm #

    Hi Flora, I hope you’re well. I’m sure Lelde is looking after you (and knows a lot more than me about mushrooms) but just in case you’ve got it dried and ready to eat – that one you’ve labelled a porcini looks a bit like a Panther Cap which is poisonous. I know you wouldn’t eat it unless you were sure but thought I’d post just in case! Latvia looks amazing, hope you’re enjoying it.

    • Flora October 24, 2015 at 6:55 am #

      Luckily I didn’t actually eat any of the mushrooms we picked – and now I’m kind of glad! Getting mushroom poisoned would have definitely altered my experience of Latvia…

  4. rebecca October 22, 2015 at 3:06 am #

    Mushrooms are one of my favourite foods! I think me and Latvia would get along very well

    • Flora October 24, 2015 at 6:55 am #

      You definitely would, Rebecca – there are mushrooms in most of the local dishes!

  5. Selga Benkis October 22, 2015 at 8:45 pm #

    Mushrooms in Latvia have been a little scarce this autumn, but next year is bound to be better…. come back soon, Flora, and we’ ll really fill those baskets!

    • Flora October 24, 2015 at 6:56 am #

      Next year it’s on my agenda, Selga!

  6. Katie Bell October 23, 2015 at 12:06 am #

    I used to forage for wild blackberries and field mushrooms occasionally when I was a kid and re-ignited my passion for foraging on the Gulf Islands of Canada foraging for chantrelles, oysters and mussels. I also picked so many wild guavas and passionfruit when I was in Hawaii recently – there is nothing like eating food that you have foraged yourself from nature 🙂

    • Flora October 24, 2015 at 6:58 am #

      I reckon I’m going to hunt out foraging expeditions in a lot more places I travel from now on, Katie. It’s such a fun thing to do, and you’re right – eating food you’ve found with your own two hands feels so much more satisfying!

  7. The Wallflower Wanderer October 23, 2015 at 8:35 am #

    Super nice article! Great pics. I have always wanted to go mushroom foraging (minus the tick threat, yikes). I feel like you could possibly submit this to a food blog or something, too 🙂

    • Flora October 24, 2015 at 6:58 am #

      That’s a great idea! I’ll keep you updated about future food blog publications :p

  8. Rekha Rajan October 24, 2015 at 12:23 am #

    the way the article started, i thought i had just started a novel. seriously. damn good. I could visualize the two of you making your way through the forest. 🙂

    • Flora October 24, 2015 at 6:59 am #

      Thanks so much Rekha! I like to tell a story when I write my articles – glad you enjoyed the style 🙂

  9. Josh Reid November 21, 2015 at 10:41 pm #

    Such incredible pictures Flora, love them all! Foraging sounds like a lot of fun and time well spent 🙂

  10. AnnaEverywhere December 3, 2015 at 6:04 pm #

    Haha this is so funny I wrote a similar post on mushrooms in Poland… one of a few things I miss from my childhood actually – wild mushrooms <3

    • Flora December 7, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

      Aww that’s so lovely that you used to go foraging as a child Anna! I can easily imagine myself doing this in multiple countries – it’s so much fun 🙂

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