Rainy Monday of August in Vecsaule, a village in Bauska, Latvia. I woke up early because the excitement didn´t let me sleep more: we were going to pick up mushrooms in the forest that day, an experience totally new for me.
After breakfast we prepared ourselves for the quest: rain boots and coats, rubber gloves, one knife for each, camera, some plastic bags and a bucket – those two last items revealed themselves very insufficient later. We were looking like two hobbits in our hoods and cloaks of dark blue, green and brown.
In our way we met a very satisfied Latvian man with a basket full of fresh mushrooms. When inside the forest, a weak and constant rain started, but it was very pleasant to walk; the tops of the big trees restrained the water. We walked stepping in old leaves from the past seasons and in a green carpet of moss. The Latvian forests have a imposing atmosphere, but at the same time, kind, like they were old and mysterious but graceful and regardful. If you come with good thoughts and good intentions, then you are welcome. Peace and quietness were all around. The only sounds were the soft and intermittent whistles of hidden birds and the breaking of dry leaves and fallen twigs by our feet.
We found only a few mushrooms, mostly Bērzu baravika or Boletus betulicola. I am crazy about edible mushrooms, but in my country, Brazil, the mushroom passion is not the same as in Latvia. We don´t enter in the forest to search for them because in Brazil there is a large number of poisonous mushrooms (some can really kill) that look exactly like edible species, so people get afraid to confusing them. Most of the mushrooms we have available to buy at markets are cultivated and imported, therefore, very expensive. Recently the production of mushrooms in Brazil has increased, but it is still rare to find something beyond the champignon (Agaricus bisporus), native from Europe and North America, and oriental Shimeji and Shiitake.
I was delighted to see that in Latvia you can not only buy fresh mushrooms in any market very cheap, but you can also go and pick up them yourself. In The Lord of the Rings book, Tolkien writes that Hobbits have “a passion for mushrooms, surpassing even the greediest likings of Big People”. So are Latvians compared to the other nationalities. In the cities I´ve visited it was easy to see people carrying baskets of fresh mushrooms carefully, like it was a treasure, with happy faces.
After two hours and one plastic bag half full, we decided to go away, but I went I a bit further just to give a last look. I glanced to my right, nothing; I glanced to my front, nothing; I glanced to my left and there they were: two huge mushrooms! One was fresh, the other was starting to rot. I came closer to them and suddenly I started to see mushrooms everywhere in that direction. Small, medium, large… They were beautiful! It was the Mushroom Paradise, as we joked about it. I felt so happy with the discovery – like a thrilled Hobbit – that I somehow lost the gloves that were in my pocket.
The mushrooms we found there were mostly Parastā apšubeka or Red-capped Scaber Stalk (Leccinum aurantiacum), a very delicious type. We stayed in that location for at least two hours more. Our bucket and all plastic bags were totally full; we had to leave a lot behind us, for another mushroom lover to find.
Later when we returned home, I learned how to clean and prepare them with a latvian lady. We made a lot of jars with mushrooms preserves with vinegar and spices and the rest we ate fried, pure, with spices, with vegetables, in soup, in bread… Delicious!
There is a latvian proverb that says: “Kas nestrādā, tam nebūs ēst” (He that will not work, shall not eat). The meal tastes different and better when you strive to have it and prepare it yourself. That is why this was one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. To be able to see all those mushrooms and to pick them up with nature around me made me feel even more respect for the nature that provides us those delicious gifts. With the rush of everyday life and the facilities of the modern world, the contact with nature is priceless. I am really happy to know that in Latvia this is still very much alive.