Forest in a basket

  • 2001-10-11
  • Martins Bluzma
RIGA - There is an old legend about early Latvians who sat in oak trees eating mushrooms. To the foreigner this might sound ridiculous, but to anyone who has been to the country during mushroom season (sometimes from the summer solstice to the first freeze of winter), it does not seem all that far fetched.

Just a drive down a country road in late summer and fall will reveal the mushroom die-hards, basket or bucket in one hand and knife in the other. The closest forests may be full of the quiet hunters, each coming as secretly as they go. They discuss the matter seriously with friends and family, and will rarely tell you where they have been unless you are particularly close to them, especially if they find a good patch.

The good mushroomer will cut the mushroom at the base, leaving the roots intact in the earth so that another batch can grow. And they always hide where they cut with leaves or other forest mulch.

There are many different kinds of edible mushrooms, and 294 can be found in Latvia. But, because it can be difficult to differentiate between the poisonous and edible ones, the most popular for collectors are the chantrelle (Cantharellus cibarius) and the bolete (Boletus edulis). These mushrooms are delicate in flavor and can be eaten freshly sautéed in oil or made into a sauce while most other edible mushrooms must be specially boiled before preparing as food.

The chantrelle is a beautiful yellow-orange mushroom found peeking out of moss on the forest floor. They often grow in clusters, so where there is one there may be others. The sides of the caps are like waves and the undersides have gills that descend the length of the stem. The tops of the young mushrooms are domed and the older are concave. The mushroom is firm and the color is consistent, varying only from lighter yellow to a darker yellow-orange in dry or wet weather.

The bolete is really the favorite of mushroom goers. Not just for its good flavor or the price they bring at the market - 2.50 lats ($4) a kilo - but because they are so pretty and fun to find. They can be difficult to spot if you have never found one, so the first find is always memorable. The caps are generally brown in color (varying shades from dark brown, light brown to brown red) and the cap qualities differ from smooth and dry to matte and slimy.

The base is thick and white, the cap sometimes barely wider than the stem, especially in the young mushroom where it is not unusual to find a small cap atop a fat stem. The undersides do not have regular mushroom gills. Instead, it looks something like foam rubber, solid but with really tiny holes for texture in a yellowish color.

Town of Ikskile residents Janis and Biruta Jakubovs love to pick mushrooms. They go collecting as often as three times a week, and not just for quick jaunts, either. When they go, they are gone for hours. Janis said, "Usually we drive at least 100 kilometers for them."

His wife smiled and with a wink said, "And then we walk a lot, too."

"But sometimes," he continued, "we drive very far away. "Usually, we don't go on the weekends, because there are so many other people. The first time we did, though, we visited our favorite forest in the Kegums area. It seems like we saw a hundred other cars, but every person we passed had something in his basket."

Then they began to talk about their favorite mushroom, the baravika (bolete).

"In Latvia, it depends on the season, but sometimes they begin to grow right after the summer solstice, but not this year. You can't really say what kind of landscape they like; sometimes they are under birch trees, or spruce trees," Biruta said. "A lot of times I find them growing near the mushmire (poisonous death cap, Amanita muscaria, a mushroom with a red cap and white dots)."

Like many others, they also store them for the winter. "Our freezer is full of boletes," she said proudly, "and I have more than 50 jars of them marinated in the basement." Those that she stores in the freezer are first cooked in the pan, without salt or any other spices, to take away most of the water so they'll take up less space when frozen. "We have a big family and all of our children, nieces and nephews like to eat them, especially those I marinade."

Some people don't even eat mushrooms, but need some motivation for walking out in the forest, and so they collect them to give to friends or sell at the market. Besides, the beautiful boletes guarantee good humor and kilometers of walking.

Zaiga, a woman who sells mushrooms at the Riga market, said that she gets up very early to begin her search. As early as 5 a.m. she can be found wandering in the forests and she collects until 10 a.m. before she rushes off the market to get a good spot.

The best way to begin picking is to go with someone who knows about mushrooms and the local forests. Or, if you really want to go but have no one to go with, bring a mushroom book (most will have pictures of the chantrelle and boletus), and, if you don't have the best orientation skills, a map and compass. Arm yourself with a basket or bucket and a knife. But before you eat them, be sure to show your basket to someone who knows.

All kinds of mushrooms can be bought in Latvian outdoor markets, usually from independent collectors. If you are looking to buy boletes, it is best to buy the smaller, firm mushrooms because they have a fresher taste. The big ones, however, are also good. But before you cook them, just remove the soft foam-like gills under the cap. If you buy the chantrelle, regardless of the size, you can eat it all.

It is best to clean and wash your mushrooms immediately after you get home (if you are too tired to go through the process of cleaning and cooking, then it's okay to put them in the refrigerator for no more than 24 hours). Inspect the boletes for worms by cutting off the base. If you find small holes - the passage ways of worms - keep cutting little by little until the meat of the stalk is solid. Wash well with water then chop them up and prepare for eating.

The best time to go mushroom gathering is in the morning right after it has rained, but when it is not too warm or dry and there aren't a lot of mosquitoes is good, too.

Biruta's recipe for marinated baravikas: First put the cleaned and chopped mushrooms in cold water. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 40 minutes. Afterward, rinse repeatedly with cold water until the water comes away clear. In a separate pot, boil one liter of water with three level tablespoons of salt and sugar each, five to six bay leaves and about 15 whole pepper corns.

Add the cleaned and boiled mushrooms to the boiling marinade mixture. Cook together for three minutes. Take off the fire and add three tablespoons of vinegar essence (70% vinegar) to the mixture. In cleaned jars, place mushrooms and chunks of garlic (about five cloves per jar) and pour over the marinade mixture. About one liter of marinade makes five 1/2 liter jars of mushrooms.

Baravika or chantrelle sauce for three people: Take half a kilogram of cleaned and chopped fresh mushrooms and sauté them with two tablespoons oil or butter over low heat for 10 minutes or until most of the water has boiled out of them (note: do not cook them until they wither and dry). In another pan, sauté two medium sized chopped onions with two tablespoons oil or butter until they are slightly browned. Mix together in a large pan with half a teaspoon of salt and a few pinches of pepper. Add half a cup of milk and then, after a moment, a 3/4 cup of sweet cream or one cup half-and-half, stirring the whole time. Bring to a simmer and then take off the heat. Add more salt and pepper to taste. This sauce is traditionally served over boiled or fried potatoes.