When times get tough, Latvians head for the forest for nutritious and delicious treats just waiting to be plucked. It’s an ancient ritual that keeps bellies full and spirits up.
In recent years, “foraging” and “wild foods” have captivated hipsters around the world, as people seek to reconnect with pure ingredients and forgotten lifestyles. But for Latvians, the fad is old news, as they never stopped viewing Mother Nature as their larder.
Come autumn, rubber booted, buckets and knives in hand, we journey to our favourite mushrooming spots, eyes peeled for tasty morsels that emerge after rain (and which other, less observant hunters have missed). Sorted, cleaned and chopped, then frozen, pickled or chucked straight on the pan, it’s a free meal from the gods.
Zane Eniņa is a particularly devoted member of this tribe. Trekking deep into a state forest behind her house near Inčukalns, halfway between Riga and Sigulda, gives a lift you just don’t get pushing a supermarket trolley.
“There’s something wonderful about being here – the peace, the fresh air,” she sighs contentedly.
The root sauce
At first glance, Zane seems an unlikely guide to these earthy traditions. You’d expect to find a 43-year-old marketing consultant, intrepid world traveller and blogger embedded with a laptop and a latte in Riga, not in a pine forest. But ducking into the woods is a lifelong passion, dating back to childhood summers at the family farm near Drusti, Vidzeme.
Sharing this joy with others also sprouted organically. When Couchsurfing guests from cultures not used to this kind of thing wanted to go mushrooming, Zane happily agreed, and they liked it so much that this year she started offering it as an Airbnb “experience.” That venture has stalled due to the Covid-19 crisis, but she happily escorts curious locals around her realm.
Which is how, eager to extend my knowledge, I found myself on a sunny afternoon struggling to keep up with her long-strides and sharp eyes.
Although dry weather has diminished the pickings, Zane’s basket steadily fills with prized baravikas (king boletes), as well as lesser-known but palatable shrooms – apšubekas, alksnenes, bērzlapes, cūcenes, vilnīši. (Google’s your friend for the English). Lingonberries and Iceland moss, which makes for an immunity-boosting tea, add to the bounty.
According to a Latvian wisecrack, you can eat any type of mushroom – at least once. According to Zane, the general rule is that ones with foam under their caps are safe, while those with ribs should be avoided (though there are exceptions, like delectable gailenes (chanterelles)).
“If in doubt, steer clear,” she cautions.
I have total faith in Zane’s judgement, and after all that exercise, when she suggests going back to the house to make soup, prodding isn’t required.
The said building is another expression of DIY creativity. Over 17 years, Zane has expanded and remodelled a cramped, Soviet-vintage hovel into wood-panelled, open-planned good taste, dotted with homemade bookshelves and beds and embroidered wristbands. Another project is memorising 88 poems by the late Latvian bard Imants Ziedonis, because learning poetry by heart is something folks just don’t do anymore.
But back to the kitchen. Zane’s bolete soup recipe, which today I lend a modest hand to conjuring up, also calls for onions, grated marrow and new potatoes (all homegrown), as well as a seasoning burst from a tub of mushroom-flavoured cream cheese.
Three bowls later, my tastebuds are lyrical.