“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.