Northern Scandinavians have an obsession with mushrooms, a passion shared with the Russians. In times of famine, they have made up as significant part of the diet in northern Scandinavia – many species picked and used are not even considered good to eat in other parts of the world and by means of salting, pickling and drying, mushrooms can even be preserved through the winter. In southern Scandinavia mushrooming is not so popular, maybe because there are not so many woods to pick them in. Learn more about Scandinavian mushrooms.
Mushrooming is a national pastime in the autumn, every family having their secret places, which they do not share. It’s quite fun if you meet someone in the woods in the mushroom-picking season as they might pretend they are not there at all, and they will try to escape or hide behind trees; or, if anyone encounter is unavoidable, they are definitely not out to pick mushrooms, just walking the dog.
A lot more mushrooms than you might think are edible, and quite tasty at that, but only a few are really delicious. Mushrooms are as much about consistency as they are taste. Many have a lovely flavor, but are too slippery or gummy to be good when roasted.
When you pick a variety, the less good ones can be made into a very tasty soup, while the best should be eaten on their own, in all their glory.
The huge northern woods
The huge northern woods are home to hundreds of edible mushrooms, and a few deadly ones, if you do not have an experienced mushroom picker or book at your side, it is a dangerous business.
Norwegians and Swedes are taught from childhood what to pick and what not. Since species are easy to find and identify, but, even then, you must take a comprehensive mushroom book with you. I am absolutely not saying this to put anyone off the experience – it’s greatly rewarding – but just to remind you to play safe.
You must also remember that mushrooms vary, and the following descriptions apply strictly to those found in Scandinavia: mushrooms described as safe in Scandinavia, in other parts of the world there may be very similar-looking mushrooms which are poisonous.
Mushrooms can be found everywhere, even on old, withering elders by the sea, and in apparently barren landscapes, but the majority are found in woods in the autumn; the morel is a delicious exception, which shows itself in spring and early summer. Chanterelles can already be found from late June, if it has been raining, and ceps from early August. The season ends with oyster mushrooms, growing by the kilo on broken-down beech logs on the forest floor.
Habitat is very important when determining the identity of mushrooms. A few grow almost anywhere, but the majority live with certain trees, and in certain habitats, which makes it easier to identify them correctly.
It is safe to pick the abundant chanterelle (Cantharelus cibarius), which I consider to be the best mushroom to eat. It is entirely orange, darker when growing under pine or spruce, lighter when found in oak and beech woods. It grows in huge colonies in both deciduous and coniferous woods.
Related: Food and Drink in Sweden
Its close relative, the horn of plenty or trumpet of death (Craterellus ornucopiodies), is an easily recognized and delicious mushroom. It is black, with a grey bloom, and completely hollow. The folds of very thin flesh look like scalloped leaves about to be drawn into the ground by earthworms only the color betrays them. The name ‘trumpet of death’ refers only to the black color, not to anything more sinister.
Another chanterelle, the yellow-foot (Craterellus tubaeformis), is hard to find as its cap has the color of rotting leaves, but when you do come across it, you will find enough not just for soups and stews, but for drying and pickling as well.
The small but pretty mushrooms form virtual carpets with their bright yellow, twisted stems and pale gills resembling fine lace.
All three types of chanterelle are firm and dry-fleshed, and have a delicious, chewy consistency when cooked. They are also perfect for drying.
The different varieties of milk-cap in the Lactarius genus are recognizable for the fact that they all bleed ‘milk’ when cut. The ‘milk’, actually latex, is often white at first but change color to various shades of yellow, orange and red. There are many, many types of milk-cap, and the best way to determine if they are edible is to taste the milk – if it’s bitter, don’t pick them (though the Finnish and Russians eat most of them). Because of the mushroom’s natural bitterness, milk-caps are often salted in brine, which draws out the bitter juices.
There are hundreds of types of mushrooms in the Russula (meaning ‘reddish’) genus. In Scandinavia, russulas are everywhere, their beautiful caps strewn across the ground like brightly colored toys. Despite the genus name, they can be pretty much any color except bright blue: pink, red, burgundy, canary yellow, pistachio green, dark green, black-grey or violet. The gills and stems are usually white, and the fleshy stems have a certain cheesy consistency, with no rings attached, and with no detectable fibre. They are good to eat if they have mild taste; bitter or sharp, peppery ones are not good to eat, or can even be slightly toxic.
Boletus mushrooms are visually very different from other varieties. There are no gills, but a spongy layer on the underside of the cap, made up of tiny tubes, which are easy to recognize. Many Boletus mushrooms are particularly good to eat. There are, however, a couple of toxic species (albeit rare) and two extremely bitter ones. The bitter ones are not poisonous, but will ruin the rest of your mushrooms if you cook them together. So take your mushroom book with you on your hunt.
The best known is Boletus edulis, the giant cep or porcini, and the king of mushrooms. It grows to an impressive 30cm in height, and one, fully grown, is enough to feed a whole family. The top is the color and size of a lightly burnt bun, the stalk thick and cream-colored. When young, the mushroom resembles Humpty Dumpty, the cap folded over the fat stem, and this is when it’s at its best. Later, it can still be wonderful, as long as it’s firm-fleshed.
Related: Food and Drink in Norway
Boletus edulis is abundant in Scandinavia and very much sought after. It is delicious however you cook it, and is the only mushroom besides the button mushroom that you can eat raw. If you want to fry it, do so in plenty of very hot oil or unsalted butter, as any salt in the frying will make it soggy. Fry it at high heat, until barely tender and season with salt and pepper, garlic and plenty of chopped parsley. It’s beautiful on toast, or as an accompaniment to almost anything.
Mushrooms in the Morchella genus are often found where wood has been cut, even in strange places where you do not expect them, for example among wood shavings used for ground cover in private gardens and public parks.
There are two common species, as well as so-called false morel, in Scandinavia. They are all hollow inside. The black morel (Morchella conica) has the characteristic deeply grooved cap, resembling honeycomb, in the shape of a pointed goblin’s hat. It comes in many shades, from whitish grey to pitch black.
The common or yellow morel (morchella esculenta) is another species, much larger, with yellowish, rounded heads. There is a fairly good chance of finding them from April to June in beech woods, especially where white and yellow anemones grow together, though the wood-shavings that they also grow on can be found anywhere they are spread by man. Yellow morels are not quite as intensely flavored as the black ones, but you are bound to find many of them, and this will more than make up for the disappointment in flavor.
Both these species are poisonous when raw, and will make you sick unless they are thoroughly cooked.
The false morel (Gyromitra esculenta) is not a true morel, and it is poisonous. The toxins are not destroyed completely by either drying or cooking. The cap looks like a twisted brown brain, and it is found in continuous woods from March to June.
When you pick your own mushrooms, just yank them out of the ground. The very bottom of the stalk can be the only way to determine a deadly mushroom, as it often carries the remnants of the membrane that covers the entire mushroom when it is young. Clean them straight away, with a small knife and a soft brush. If you wait, the dirt will settle and be very difficult to remove. Place the mushrooms in a basket, not a plastic bag, because the spores can then blow away while you walk through the forest (and initiate new colonies of fungi), and also because they can lie separately in a dry basket, rather than sweating together in plastic.
Don’t mix mushrooms you know to be safe with other interesting mushrooms or an unknown species that you want to check out or sample – collect them in a separate basket. If you actually collect a deadly mushroom, even a small piece will make you very sick. Once at home, go through the unidentified mushrooms with a book or an experienced collector by your side.
Try not to wash the mushrooms; if you have cleaned them while picking, they won’t need it. If you must, however, fill a basin with cold water and wash them very quickly (don’t leave them to soak), then dry them on kitchen paper. Mushrooms should be eaten the day they are collected, though you can fry them in butter and then freeze them.
Related: Food and Drink in Denmark
Buying and storing
The range of mushrooms that can be cultivated successfully is extremely small, which is why such limited variety is available in the shops, often restricted to button, portobello or cremini mushrooms, all versions of Agaricus bisporous. However, the recipe below can be made using bought mushrooms.
Bought mushrooms must be very fresh, unblemished and clean. Fresh, young mushrooms can be kept in the fridge – on a dish covered with a clean tea towel and not in a plastic container – for a few days. The reason for being so careful is that other fungi, or mould, can grow on them, and this can be slightly poisonous, or can just ruin the original mushrooms.
Mushrooms all have the strange ability to add a meaty flavor to other ingredients, and are good in almost all stock soups and vegetable mixtures. We have some lovely mushroom soups in Scandinavia, and these are the best way to use nondescript common mushrooms. Only ceps and button mushrooms can be eaten raw, and they make a lovely salad, carpaccio-style.
Firm mushrooms can be turned into a versatile pickle, which is good with cold cuts, fried meats, venison and game. They are lovely on a plain green salad when pickled in vinegar with spices and kept in olive oil.
Dried mushrooms have been a staple for millennia: for centuries, drying was the only way to keep mushrooms through the winter, long before salting and pickling. They were often dried over open fire, giving them a smoky flavor which matched the mushrooms’ meatiness perfectly. Dried mushrooms have a strange, alien beauty, and will keep for years if stored in closed jars. They can be crumbled into a stew or used whole.
Both dried and fresh mushrooms are perfect with game and venison, being at their peak season at the same time.
Creamed mushrooms on toast
This is a classic wherever people pick mushrooms, and always tastes lovely if prepared carefully. You can use chanterelles, button mushrooms or other firm mushrooms, but it does not work with caps. If you should ever tire on this traditional recipe, you can always spice it up by adding wine, onion or garlic.