A Kind of Magic

By Jens Linder. Photographs by Ebbe Stub Wittrup.

Although newly picked mushrooms can be ever so fresh and pure, appearances can be deceiving. Here, the dark side of Scandinavia’s fungi, shining a light on the forest’s ‘little people.’

In a mythical sense mushrooms belong to the dark, the mysterious and the gothic. Many appear to have prematurely aged when they grow out of the soil. They look as if they have been standing there forever, like ancient miniature statues, dusty, oxidized and matted, covered with fine nets, rotting leaves or drops of dew. Some seem to be antique: the hat of the bay bolete (Boletus badius) resembles worn leather, the sheep polypore (Albatrellus ovinus) looks like parchment, the grass green Russula (Russula aeruginea) like copper acetate. Sometimes the mushrooms’ odour seems ancient too. Some smell like old flour, mould or rotting meat, the most extreme is without a doubt the common stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus) – reeking of decomposing flesh and happening to resemble an erect penis.  With such an odd presence, it’s unsurprising that these creations of the wood were feared and rejected by many – even in countries rich in fungi like Finland and Sweden.

Their appearance was enough to scare people who often thought them part of the underworld – siblings to elves, trolls and gnomes. Appearing suddenly in dried-out forests with old spruce, dark shadowy oaks or fairy-tale beech wood with soft carpets of moss (rather unknown and frightening places in former times) – they were given names like trolls’ hands, trolls’ beards, toads’ hats and hags’ farts. Those who valued fungi – whether as food, dye, medicine or narcotic – were in often in danger of being labelled witches or shamans. Before the 18th century, few people ate mushrooms. Even the founder of modern botany, Swedish genius Carl von Linné (1707-1778) held a suspicious attitude towards mushrooms, going as far as to classify them in the same biological group as maggots.

It wasn’t until the arrival of ex-lieutenant Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, imported from France and crowned monarch of Sweden as Karl XIV Johan in 1818, that an interest in mushrooms was sparked within the upper classes—a group whose dining habits were heavily influenced by French fashions in cooking. This, combined with increased education, campaigns against famine, and a growing interest in nature and the environment, led to mushroom picking becoming a common practice in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Pickers began to search the wood and fields from June to November (and sometimes even until Christmas).

The picking of mushrooms remains a serious matter. Armed with nothing more than a basket and a small knife (special types exist with small brushes for fungi cleaning), mushroom foragers head into the forests on a peaceful sort of hunt. In Norway, Sweden and Finland, a legal decree, allemansrätten (“every man’s right”) grants all citizens the right of common access, allowing one the freedom to pick berries, flowers and mushrooms throughout the land, so long as one doesn’t stray too close to private homes and avoids damage to the landscape. This unique privilege is strongly appreciated by the populace, who despite being for the most part secularized are still ardent worshippers of nature. The Finns have been the most enthusiastic of mushroom pickers, linked no doubt to their historic  standing as Scandinavia’s poorest country, alongside the culinary influence of their Russian neighbours.

The size of the mushrooms harvested in a given season is entirely dependent on the weather. Perfect conditions are a warm, yet not too dry summer, followed by a fairly rainy and temperate autumn. To find fungi in Scandinavia, one should try to avoid young woods and very mountainous areas; for the greatest variety, older forests abundant with pine and birch are best. The most common and popular species in Sweden is undoubtedly the chanterelle (aka girolle), whose earthy aroma is valued in many dishes and the penny bun or cep (Boletus edulis), commonly named the Karljohan in Swedish after the aforementioned French-imported monarch. An old Nordic favourite is the morel, especially Gyromitra esculenta, which, sadly, has been discovered to be carcinogenic. Fortunately though, the black morel (Morchella elata) has proved a healthy alternative. Additionally, Scandinavia offers other examples that experienced pickers also treasure, these include horn of plenty (Craterellus cornucopioides), parasol mushroom (Macrolepiota procera), horse mushroom (Agaricus arvensis) and other Agaricus relatives. For the true connoisseur, delicacies abound with such exotics as the St. George’s mushroom (Galocybe gambosa), fairy ring champignon (Marasmius oreades), Swedish matsutake (Tricholoma nauseosum), slimy spike (Gomphidius glutinosus), shaggy cap (Coprinus comatus) and velvet shank (Flammulina velutipes).

For the chef, mushrooms can be both a blessing and a challenge especially to bring out the pungent qualities of each particular fungi. Within Nordic cuisines, the most common ways of cooking mushrooms are to cream or sauté in butter and serve simply on toast; make them into creamy soups; or, transform into rich sauces served with beef, pork or freshwater fish. Cookery books are filled with recipes often laconically calling for “mushrooms” or “champignons.” Recalling that the fragrance and taste differs so widely between sorts, this would be similar to recommending “meat” for tournedos Rossini or beef Bourguignon. The disparity between the fruity wood hedgehog (Hydnum repandum) and the slippery jack (Suillus luteus) is far greater than that between plaice and cod. Mushrooms from the Boletus group have a mild yet haunting taste, with notes of nutmeg, chocolate and coffee. The common chanterelles are fruitier, while the trumpet chanterelle and parasol mushroom are rich in umami (the fifth basic taste, described as savoury), especially when dried. Rarer delicacies are the tawny milkcap mushroom (Lactarius volemus) and the scented Russula (Russula xerampelina) that both, though unrelated, possess a seafood-esque aroma. In Scandinavia, naturally they are often served stewed with dill.

Ultimately, variety allows for creativity. The big challenge for a chef is to cook wild mushrooms so they develop a pleasant and interesting character without losing their original flavour. One shouldn’t chop up mushrooms and make them unrecognizable – as in the Scandinavian tradition, it’s often better to leave them half or whole, and flavour them quite carefully to preserve the ethereal scents of the woods and trolls.