Lessons learned on the first foraging trip of the year
Wild mushroom risotto, oyster mushroom tacos, chanterelle pie, porcini soup, stuffed portobello mushrooms… As the air turns more crisp and I spy a yellow leaf here and there, I know mushroom season has arrived. Whether you love them or hate them, you absolutely can’t deny the thrill of foraging for free food in the wild – the closest a modern city dweller will ever be to a hunter-gatherer. Who needs a grocery store when nature offers its own treasures at your fingertips?
Inspired by posts from seemingly every member of the “Funga Íslands – sveppir ætir eður ei” Facebook group and equipped with not one but two rattan baskets, a Swiss Army knife, a couple of books borrowed from the library the night before and two equally clueless colleagues, I decided it was time to go mushroom picking. For a dash of extra luck, I wore my mushroom socks.
I had foraged for mushrooms before. But the last time resulted in me getting bitten by a forest tick, ending up at an emergency room where three surgeons marvelled at the tick’s size before removing it using a gigantic syringe. That was followed by a round of antibiotics and being tested for Lyme disease. That said, I did find one mushroom on that venture.
Still, the idea of foraging for mushrooms had long been romanticised in my mind. When I lived in Finland, you didn’t have to go far to find my favourite chanterelles. I wouldn’t even call it foraging; all you had to do was bend over and pick them up – the yellow carpet, scattered with the freshest produce. I remember going to work and picking blueberries during the day and chanterelles in the evening. On such days, dinner and dessert were sorted with ease – of course, I’d go for a mushroom pasta and blueberry pie.
Into the forest
I wanted to recreate this experience in Iceland, but when you say “forest,” there aren’t many options here. What’s more, I wanted to visit a genuine forest, not just a park. Luckily, convincing my colleagues to take a Thursday afternoon off and head to Skorradalshreppur, south of Borgarfjörður, just an hour’s drive from Reykjavík, wasn’t difficult. Located on Lake Skorradalsvatn, in a narrow valley between Hvalfjörður and Reykholtsdalur, the area looks like it’s been plucked from the landscapes of the Finnish or Swedish countryside – rows of neat cottages, a crystal-clear lake and, unusual for Iceland, a lush forest.
I dedicated multiple hours to trying to persuade local foragers to join us to quickly learn that the wild mushroom community is relatively closed, similar to the world of dumpster diving. If you know the locations of these precious fungi, you often don’t want to share them with strangers, let alone a journalist.
The forest welcomes us with open arms and even those sceptical of the adventure succumb. We’re happy just to be in the forest – the moss is as bouncy as I remember, the trees are far more appealing than the city’s glass structures and the sky is my favourite colour: September blue.
It doesn’t take long before we find our first catch – a beautiful mushroom with a red, white-spotted cap – a toadstool, known in professional circles as Amanita muscaria or ‘berserkjasveppur’ in Icelandic. We’re no fools and are well aware that this one is dangerous. While it might not be deadly, it can certainly make you sick, and its effects are amplified by any pre-existing conditions you may have. With no intention to bring this one home, we can’t help but marvel at it for a while. How can nature create something so stunning and simultaneously harmful?
As we go deeper into the forest, I realise that bringing along Helgi Hallgrímsson’s 600-page Sveppabókin might not have been the best idea. My basket doesn’t drag me down because of the mushrooms I’ve collected; it’s the weight of this book. Soon, I will learn that for more tech-savvy people, there are plenty of mushroom identification apps – think of them as similar to Shazam or Vivino, but for fungi. They will scan your find in just one click, providing you with those desired words: edible or poisonous.
Losers meet winners
As we go deeper into the forest, I realise that bringing along Helgi Hallgrímsson’s 600-page Sveppabókin might not have been the best idea. My basket doesn’t drag me down because of the mushrooms I’ve collected; it’s the weight of this book.
As two hours pass by, we’re almost ready to give up. But just as we’re walking towards the car, we run into a group of five women, and somehow, they look like they know what they’re doing. “Have you been foraging?” I ask. “Yes, yes, yes,” the group answers almost in unison. “King mushrooms!” says one of them and opens the trunk of their car to boast what they’ve found – a whole basket of Boletus edulis, commonly known as porcini. The Icelandic name is “kóngssveppur,” literally translating to “king mushroom,” so it’s no wonder that’s what the women called it. The group, originally from Thailand, has lived in Iceland for up to 30 years, and they often go on mushroom-picking trips together. They’re already making plans for their mushroom stir-fry dinner and recommend that we go up the mountain.
And so we try, saying goodbye to the group of women and venturing deeper into the woods. We stay off the path and try to step into untouched areas, in the hope of finding at least something. And yet all we see are more Amanita muscaria, or toadstools (poisonous), Musena pura, or lilac bonnets (poisonous), Russula delica, or milk-white brittlegills and Russula chloroides, or blue band brittlegills (only edible when young).
Ask an expert
Looking for answers as to why we failed, I turn to a mycologist from the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. Guðríður Gyða Eyjólfsdóttir, PhD, joins me on the call from Akureyri. Along with her geologist friend Höskuldur Búi Jónsson, Guðríður manages the above-mentioned group of mushroom enthusiasts on Facebook. One of the things I’m most curious about is, of course, where to find porcini mushrooms and chanterelles.
“They are below the ground kind of things,” Guðríður confidently answers about chanterelles. “They hide underneath the vegetation,” she adds, confirming that they do grow in the Borgarfjörður area. However, expert foragers often prefer to keep the locations a secret. “When it comes to Boletus edulis and chanterelles, people get really secretive. Because the fungus is still there. It might be attached to a particular tree or a bush, so it means that it will still be there next year when you show up.”
The Icelandic climate is too cold for many of the fungi that grow in other parts of Europe, but “there are still plenty of them,” says Guðríður as she shows me the exact same Sveppabókin that lies on the desk next to me. She quickly dispels my belief that mushrooms can only be found in forests. “There are some mushrooms that grow in fields. They’ve always done that; they like to eat that way,” she says. Unfertilised grasslands that have either been mowed or used as grazing pastures for cows or horses are often a home for these mushrooms.
Unlike the forest, rain seems necessary for a successful foraging catch. “Usually, they are triggered to start producing a new flush of fruiting bodies when it rains,” Guðríður explains. “You have to give the fungus a little time – maybe three or four days. You don’t want to pick the very small ones, and you don’t want to pick the too old ones,” she says. The latter are usually full of larvae and bacteria.
Once mushrooms are picked, it’s better to process them on the same day – whether for drying, freezing, or eating. “Remember that fungus is a material that spoils rather quickly,” Guðríður stresses. She adds that the baskets foragers usually use, despite their beauty, serve a practical purpose – they are firm and allow mushrooms to be evenly distributed on the bottom without turning into a mash.
Are there any highly poisonous mushrooms in Iceland? Guðríður nods affirmatively, “We have one called Galerina marginata, or “viðarkveif” in Icelandic. It’s a little brown mushroom. Not pretty.” As Guðríður says this, I google it to find that its name in English is a funeral bell or deadly marginata. It sounds scary but resembles many other mushrooms I saw in the forest. “It usually grows in wood chips, for example, in forest paths. This little brown mushroom contains the poison that kills people in about a week or so by blocking their cells from producing proteins and multiplying.”
According to Guðríður, foraging for mushrooms wasn’t a common practice in Iceland until the 1980s. Around that time, a Finnish woman gave lectures and taught locals how to pick fungi. (of course, it took a Finn for Icelanders to appreciate nature!) “It’s a very good raw material for food,” says Guðríður. “You just have to recognise the edible species.”
If you’re unsure about a particular mushroom, it’s always better to consult an expert. “Funga Íslands – sveppir ætir eður ei” is one option. And no, Guðríður is usually not annoyed by questions from beginner foragers. I asked.
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