Scandinavia’s Mushroom Season Separates City Slickers
Sunday was “Soppens dag,” or Mushroom Day, in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Thus Scandinavia begins a month or more of activity surrounding what U.S. city slickers may find to be one of the most terrifying and tantalizing facets of the culture: mushroom picking.
Now, I am embarrassed about the “terrifying” part. As a Philadelphian, I live roughly an hour by car – two and a half to four hours by public transportation – from the self-proclaimed Mushroom Capital of the World: Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, where more than half of the U.S. mushroom crops are grown. (“World” has a different meaning in the United States than it does elsewhere. This may account for our ineptitude at geography, and vice versa.) A person might reasonably assume that despite my urban residency, I would know a little about mushrooms.
To me, however, the proximity of this significant industry has meant I can be assured of locally grown mushrooms at the supermarket – not that I can tell one from another without a nicely printed label on the plastic wrap. And greater familiarity with farmed mushrooms will not likely improve my ability to determine whether a particular wild fungus is edible.
Oddly, they don’t come with labels in natural areas – not even here, much less in Scandinavia.
As Norway has set out to welcome the mushroom (sopp in Norwegian, svamp in Swedish, and champignon in Danish – which tells you something about the Danes), the country’s news agencies, government, and various associations have provided a plethora of materials to assist amateurs and experts alike in the complex process of mushroom collecting. For those content with the basics, resources include suggestions of good mushroom locations, instructions for how to distinguish edible fungi from the most poisonous ones, and recipes for culinary delights ranging from a simple chanterelle liqueur to succulent porcini and squash blossoms.
Amid this promotion also appear numerous reasons for the outdoors-happy amateur not to be content with the basics or to equate mushrooming with a simpler pastime, such as birdwatching. Accompanying lists of courses in mushroom identification, harvesting, and proper treatment you’ll find locations of fungus inspection centers, to prevent the mere granola eater from a closer acquaintance with the national health service.
And if you still haven’t taken seriously the warning “If you don’t know, let it go,” articles warn of the effects of mushroom poisoning – ranging from simple vomiting to kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage. Certain members of the Cortinarius family of fungi, such as “deadly webcap” (Cortinarius rubellus, or slørsoppen in Norwegian, easily mistaken for the much-beloved chanterelle), and of the better-known Amanita family, especially Amanita virosa (in Norwegian, fluesøppen, well known as “destroying angel” to Midsomer Murders fans), stand out like the Borgias in this little community of roughly 7,000 regional fungi.
The average Philadelphian would probably rather risk a midnight stroll through Kensington.
So why do members of these seemingly risk-averse cultures, with safeguards for health care, retirement, worker safety, and job retraining built solidly and successfully into the national governmental systems, venture away from “leaving it to the experts” and head out into the woods each year to take a chance on mushrooms? The question has no simple, textbook answer but points to significant differences between many U.S. Americans and Scandinavians over assumptions about nation as extended community, the purpose of government, individual freedom, and the human relationship to nature.
The best way to grasp the difference is through a little experiential learning.
I went on my first ever mushrooming trip with my Swedish friend “Pelotard” in late August 2010, in a wooded area north of Stockholm. We wandered away from the suburban roads into a forest (skog) carpeted with grass, lichen, and moss, watching for ankle-turning gullies hidden under the deceptive blanket covering Ice Age stone. Sunlight drifted down among the pines as we ventured off the gravel drives and into more likely hunting territory.
Armed with a knife, a paper bag, and mosquito repellant (the last is more essential than the paper bag), Pelotard began my instruction in what to look for. Umbrellas and junked stoves, he explained, were not edible, and I should direct my attention a little closer to ground level.
In a very short time, Pelotard was happily collecting specimens while I was wondering if I needed a new prescription for my eyes. When Norges sopp- og nyttevekstforbund (the Norwegian Association of Mushrooms and Useful Plants) describes fungi as “mostly living hidden away,” they are not kidding.
Being well versed in the culturally appropriate U.S. attitude toward loners and recluses, I began to feel uneasy.
At the same time, I rediscovered my competitive urge and became downright envious. Finding dinner on the forest floor lacks the mechanical tedium of yanking it off a shelf. And honestly, it seemed the sort of thing one should know – my ancestors’ ability to distinguish one type of fungus from another (not to mention fungi from refuse) being a principal reason behind my standing in a forest in Sweden in the 21st century.
As I dedicated my focus to the low growth of the northerly latitudes, gradually isolating lingon (tyttebær in Norwegian) ripening around my feet, I finally spotted my first mushrooms. And immediately, I realized why mushrooming isn’t a hobby to take up confidently on one’s own.
Were those going to send me to the hospital, or would they add a nutty flavor to potatoes? Or both?
And that defines mushrooming in Scandinavia: it’s about taking note of your surroundings, developing a respectful relationship toward what is around you and an awareness of your role in the larger whole – and not being afraid to admit you don’t know, and to ask those who do. Like sliding down the jettegryter, mushrooming carries with it no guarantee of security, but also no sense that you are burdening society by experimenting and growing. You come back to a relationship with the land that enabled humans to develop with the humility of someone who has forgotten, with a greater respect than the U.S. idea of “domination” carries, and with the assurance that a larger community of “survivors” will try to guide you safely through it.
In the end, I did manage to add a few useful specimens to Pelotard’s collection, and we had enough for the family to enjoy nice portions of sautéed mushrooms as a side to chipped reindeer steak. This is when it really hits you: how special it is to gather yourself the food that you enjoy at dinner. It actually tastes different.
But I’ll not try it around Philadelphia, where no one knows what “those things” are (and most could care less). For the time being. I’ll make do with the plastic wrap and the supermarket receipt.
For the time being.