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.





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