Monday 26 August 2019

Seeking Finnish wild treasures: berries, boletes, bears and boreal forest

My phone has wierdly remained in Finland time since we came back, and it is helping me hold on to what was such a great trip – so interesting, so enjoyable, so tasty.  We went to Karelia – the eastern-most province of Finland – an area that has endless forests – interspersed with more lakes and ponds than farmland.  The small town of Ilomantsi was our home for a few days, set a-buzz (literally) by the Bear Festival – chain saw sculptures of bears ‘in motion’ (this year’s festival theme) emerged from great spruce logs lining the street when we arrived.  We watched each time we passed as sculptures gradually came into focus – from rough outline, to angular forms and eventually subtle expressions of movement and character.

We did so much in just a few days; we cooked in a Lutheran church – an amazing three course lunch that saw us raiding flowerbeds and nearby woodlands to embellish both table and plate; we forayed into woodlands – giddy with the abundance of the familiar and new that we found there; we visited an award winning distillery and got tipsy and a little loud tasting Arctic Blue and Black Tea gins; we made fresh cheese, walked beautiful farms and milked inky-eyed, long-eye-lashed gentle cows at Cow Camp, guided and led by our equally gentle and knowledgeable hosts; we heard stories of wolf and bear attacks, the realities of living on the edge of the great boreal forest, as well as lessons in plant use, and cooking fungi; we had an interesting morning hearing from two government projects within the Forestry Service, LUKE and Lulume, on how foraging works in Finland – marvelling at the ‘everyman’s right’ to pick, and sell (tax free). 

We drank coffee at woodland fires, were treated to the most generous and extraordinary hospitality throughout – delicious food, generous sharing of knowledge and glimpses into rural lives in Finland. The focus of our visit was the Wild Food Festival in Ilomantsi and this was great fun – we visited on the Saturday and ate all sorts of wild delicacies – tar icecream, wood flour biscuits, wild flavoured juices, bear meat for those that wished it – using mobile phones and google translate to communicate when the international language of Latin plant names failed us.

Too much really to take in, and definitely too much to describe.  However, a few highlights and thoughts for me were:

  • how ‘normalised’ wild foods are – starting with blueberry juice on the Finnair flight, in restaurants, blue berries everywhere, in sweets, icecreams, at every meal (both in savoury and sweet dishes), in supermarket products.  Not just blueberries – so many other wild berries as well – crowberries, cloudberries, lingonberries, and lovely to see sea buckthorn a ‘common berry’.  Our gorgeous host Mari (such fun, continuosly ensuring that we had all we needed, translating, guiding) knew plants because she just did – brought up using them, and still using them as food and drink.
  • so straightforward – everyman’s right; tax free sales;  Mari mentioned that there is a license system – for which you need to demonstrate that you know key species (wish I learned a little more about this).  At different times and in different groups in Scotland, we have tied ourselves in knots trying to develop codes of practice, should be have licenses to pick commercially – but in Finland they seem to have a simple system based essentially on trust and tradition.  We were spellbound to hear that ordinary people collect 50 million kilos of berries a year (20m kgs are then sold on) and 5-10 million kg of fungi (1.5 million kg sold on); the stats themselves are amazing but also amazed that the stats exist, that wild gathered products are quantified in this way. The importance of wild foods to local domestic, local and national economies is both recognised and supported; the presentations from LUKE and Lulume outlined how this is being developed through widespread research and support to private forest owners.

  • to be somewhere so abundant and rich. I am sure not all of Finland is like this – around cities and towns, and where there is more pressure of agriculture on land it might be very different – but from the presentation given to us by the forestry guys well over half of the land is. In and around Ilomantsi – the forest and marsh are abundant.  The forest crown is quite open, allowing light through to the forest floor which supports a wonderland of berries, fungi, and mosses.  Every footstep we took, there were carpets of plants – mainly familiar – ladies mantle, cranesbills, rose bay willowherbs, thistles, nettles, raspberries - so familiar but so surprising to see so much abundance and diversity.  And it proved a perfect nursery ground for the fungi novices of the group – a gentle but varied introduction to our up-coming fungi studies.

For me, to be surrounded and immersed in Boreal forst was a real treat – we have the same tree species in the UK – Scots pine, Norway spruce, birch, aspen and alder – but not so often in these open mixed stands.  A particular delight was the abundance of aspen – one of my favourite trees – rare to come across in Scotland, but tall and elegant in these Finnish woods – and the sound of the breeze through the tremulous canopy still fills my ears.  On the last day we had a wonderful walk through beautiful mixed woodland, coming out by a large pond – skirted with water lilies, bog bean, mosses, cranberries and an abundance of different berries.  We fell to picking and eating, in a frenzy – brought to a climax by the sight of large purple splodges on the path – bear poo!
There is so much I realise I did not ask whilst there; for example, what is the concern story there – I think I was blinded by so much going on, that forgot to think about why there is a LEADER project in the area.  Our own project in Scotland is driven by an urge to reconnect people with wild foods and nature, but what is theirs?  from where we stand it seems sorted, but clearly not, as otherwise there would be no project.

Could one of the issues be a narrowing of variety?  Even in this culture, there seems to be a ‘pop’ list – the berries (blue, cran, cloud, crow), mushrooms, (ceps and milk caps – despite the huge abundance of fungi – in the festival it seemed only ceps were available and dried), plants (goutweed, ladies mantle, meadowsweet).   We are much the same – elderflower, berries, chanterelles, ceps (amongst the foodies), brambles, wild garlic.  Our list is shorter, but it is the same issue, of expanding the familiarity with different plants and in different uses. 

Even with so much tradition and widespread knowledge, it was wonderful to see the new energies in play – the gin distiller, the young chefs and many of the stall holders at the festival.

Wild Wonders

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to be given a place on a training programme funded by LEADER, called Wild Wonders.  It is a year long programme, led by Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods, and our group of 12 apostles meet up with him monthly to learn more about foraging, using wild ingredients and how to introduce and guide others to a greater connection with our natural larder.  We are a mixed group of food makers (chefs, small food businesses), herbalists, guides, community educators all brought together with a common thirst to learn and explore the wild larder’s as well as our own potential.  It has been such a wonderful tonic for me – to expand my own knowledge, find a ‘tribe’ of like minded folk, explore different parts of Scotland, and meet other people using foraging at the heart of their businesses. 

I have already started to make new flavours as a result of the course, and constantly thinking about new ways to incorporate flavours into the chocolate.  As part of the Wild Wonders programme we are organising a Wild Food Festival, as part of the wider Foraging Fortnight in early September.  Our festival will be on 14th September, at beautiful Cardross Estate.   

Being LEADER, it is a cross cultural programme, working with groups in Finland, Lithuania and Latvia.  We have just had a great trip to Finland to a Wild Food Festival in Karelia province and we are looking forward to spending time with foraging friends from Finland and Latvia at our September event.

Friday 15 March 2019

Chocoa 2019, Amsterdam

As a small business in a rural area, it is easy to feel a little remote from the chocolate making community out there - I don't even bump into Iain Burnett very often and he only works 10 miles or so down the road!  So, with great excitement and with pockets full of business cards, I set off to meet fellow chocolate makers and adventurers at Chocoa 2019 in Amsterdam, an annual gathering devoted to all things cocoa and chocolate.  It is an extraordinary event - bringing together 'big chocolate'  - the Cargills, Mars and Callebauts, as well as Ministers of Trade and Cocoa from cocoa producing countrues aroud the world - and (where I fit in!) the smaller craft makers, and the various business small, medium and large who are involved in the 'value chain' of cocoa to chocolate. 

Map of Amsterdam port and waterfront
Amsterdam is the centre of cocoa in Europe - the port receives cocoa from around the world, stores and then dispatches it through Europe - and there are also chocolate processing businesses along the industrial waterfront of the city outskirts. For some reason, I had not really known or thought much about this - but it was with real pleasure and interest that I met Astrid Fisser, an amazing woman whose job is to organise all the cocoa logistics in the Port, and she told me all about its role in the cocoa supply chain and then how cocoa is moved on through Europe - mainly through the waterways and by train.

My first participation was in Women Network in Cocoa and Chocolate - an afternoon workshop that brought women from all over the world; through a number of fun introductory activities we got a sense of the global reach of the group (huge), the breadth across the value chain (from growers to bloggers), and rather alarmingly the disparity in how much chocolate we all ate a week!  We were led through a brilliant session on negotiating - so no haggling at my market stalls in the future!

On Thursday and Friday two events ran concurrently - the Chocolate Makers Forum and a Trade fair.  The trade fair covered two huge halls within the Beurs van Berlage - a very handsome early 20th century building in the heart of Amsterdam - originally built as home to the Stock Exchange.  As you walked into the Trade fair, you were met by a wonderful smell of cocoa - an earthy, slightly fruity and chocolatey aroma - and a buzz of conversation and exchange.  There were many west African growers represented - projects from Sierra Leone, Cote D'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon - brilliant to see as these are on the whole dominated by the large chocolate companies.  Companies also from East Africa - Uganda and Tanzania, including tree to bar makers.  Asia was also well represented - India, Philipines,and Vietnam.

It is a huge sector, but possibly also a small world - lots of greeting of old friends and colleagues, hearty discussions about bean variety, fermentation, sugar types and flavouring.   A couple of years ago, talk at such events was all about cocoa genetics; now it is 'post harvest' - the fermentation and drying processes that convert the raw cocoa bean into the commodity that is shipped, stored, roasted and ground into chocolate.  Lots of conversations about sustainability - the pros and cons of certification, the bottom line being how to ensure farmers are paid enough to keep them in cocoa, and attract young people into the industry.

One of the most exciting meetings for me was with Samuel Baruta - the founder of Marou - who it turns out has been to Aberfeldy!  Marou make the gorgeous Ben Tre couveture that Dewars have matched with their Aberfeldy Single Malt - so very sorry I did not happen to have a bottle at hand to present to Samuel!

What was amazing was the number of companies converting cocoa into chocolate in the country of origin - a trend that would see the value this adds staying in the cocoa growing countries - as well as skills developed, etc.  The chocolates were wonderful as well - my particular favourite a Vietnamese business VNCacao.

I had a fabulous chat about Indonesia cocoa with a chap who is setting out to source from Aceh, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Flores - it was great to catch up on how things have devoloped in the fine cocoa since my two visits there many years ago.

The big questions asked were mainly about sustainability; I am left with thoughts about integrity of supply chain, as well as are we at 'peak' single origin craft chocolate?  the trend does seem to be moving towards flavoured chocolates more.

And the event finished with a cocoa auction (I had to sit on my hands through that!) and then a rather surreal finale of an opera singer, accompanied by a harpist, singing arias she had matched to different chocolates.  This felt so very, well Dutch, really!