Suitcase and World: Mushroom Hunters.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Mushroom Hunters.

Our basket as we began to fill it up with beautiful mushrooms, Latvian woodland gems!

As planned, we spent the day foraging for mushrooms. According to our itinerary from Ieva, we would be meeting our guide outside the Elizabete Hotel at 9:30a. The plan would be to drive to/from the mushroom spots in our car.

Bro doesn't like to have to get up a minute earlier than necessary and neither do I. We're perfect travel partners. We did of course, leave enough time for him to have a quick shower and for both of us to have breakfast. He definitely does not like to gulp down his food so I always plan at least 45 minutes for breakfast.

The breakfast buffet spread at the Elizabete.  Small but tasty selection of food items.

I loved the smoked ham and the cheeses.

Front part of the dining room.  Small but cozy.

We were outside the hotel promptly at 9:30a and pretty much a few minutes later, a slender, blond headed young man approached us. From a distance, I could tell he was our guide - his wicker basket gave him away.  Mushroom hunters always carry them so as no to damage the mushrooms as they are being toted about.

We quickly introduced ourselves. Andris Klepers is his name and he lives in Valmiera which is a university town and I believe, Latvia's 2nd largest city after Riga. It took him almost two hours by train and foot to get to us. I wondered if we could have met him in his home town instead.

At first glance, he seemed to be a very friendly guy. Before we piled into the car, he laid out the game plan. We would start in one spot and see how things turn. If there were few mushrooms to be had, we would head to another location. We're towards the end of the season so pickings could be slim - we'll just have to play it by ear. Of course, I'm hoping we'll easily fill his basket :-)

Bro was in the driver's seat and of course, Andris was navigating.

Our hunting locations were all located within Gauja National Park. As Andris explained to us, anyone is allowed to go the park and forage for whatever they want to forage for - there are no restrictions. We told him that if he were to do the same in the US, he would be arrested. Foraging is a huge part of Northern European culture - I guess it would be hard to all of a sudden place restrictions on a practice that has been taken place for probably centuries.

Bro was in the driver's seat today. Before we headed off, Andris showed us the route on the map. As we made our way out of the city, it was indeed full of drab, Soviet style apartment buildings. It was morning rush hour and comparatively speaking, traffic is not bad here - I think many folks commute using public transportation.

It didn't take long for us to hit the outskirts of town. City streets gave way to a small four lane road - Latvia's version of a highway. Buildings were replaced by Aspen and pine trees. It was a flat but pretty landscape. Along the way, Andris pointed out the Ethnographic Open Air Museum which is on our sightseeing itinerary.

We only had about a 1/4 tank of gas so I suggested that we fill up at the nearest gas station. Good place to pick up bottled water as well. I had forgotten about the price of gas here - pretty much double what we pay for the equivalent volume in the US. Lucky the Hyundai isn't a gas zuzzler. Lucky again that we had the chip and pin Visa to pay for our purchases - we're quickly finding out that is the technology of choice here. I just hope that our $1000 limit will be enough to carry us through the trip.

Back out on the road, it's hard to tell what is park land and what is not - there's a lot of forested land in Latvia. According to Andris, unless it's specifically marked as "private", it's open territory.  Bro followed his directions and before we knew it, we were in the heart of Gauja National Park. We parked the car and followed Andris into the woods. He had his basket, two knives and a few mushroom identification books. We would only put mushrooms in the basket that Andris knew for sure were safe for consumption. The books would be used to identify anything that he wasn't already familiar with - really just for curiosity purposes and not for trying to determine if the mushroom was edible or not.

It was another picture perfect day in Latvia - just right for a walk in the woods. Although we all had jackets on, I had a feeling we would be peeling them off in a short while.

The woods were filled with tall, skinny Aspens and pines. The ground was damp. Mounds of moss were everywhere - it was like walking on a soft carpet.

It took Andris a matter of just a few minutes before he spotted the first mushroom. I don't know how he found the danged thing, hidden under leaves and moss. Experienced eyes. Soon enough, Bro, who can't spot me in a crowd even if I'm shouting his name, found his first mushroom. Before you know it, the guys were picking out mushrooms all over the place.

I was too busy taking in the surroundings and taking photographs though I soon got into the act as well.   The most common mushrooms were the chanterelles which you can't miss for their distinctive color and shape and the boletes which we soon were able to identify by the spongy bottoms of their caps - they don't have the typical gills.

It was amazing to see how many different shapes, sizes and colors the fungi came in. We did a quick lesson on which ones to avoid - anything flat that was growing off wood - fallen log, tree trunk was off the list as well as anything that had an *apron* right under the cap. Of course, even we knew that the Amanitas were poisonous. I had only seen images of the red one with the one speckles on the cap but here, we saw ones that were green in color.  Pretty but deadly.

Andris showing us the proper way to cut the mushroom at the basis - you don't just pull it from the ground.

That cluster of teeny, weeny black things, nestled in the moss, is a mushroom of some sort.  Not edible so we left it.

Bro with his first (of many!) chanterelle.

Another lesson from Andris.  Avoid the mushrooms that grow like shelves, off logs.

Another lesson from Andris.  If the mushroom has an *apron* on its stem, just below the cap, leave it.

Chanterelle!  Thanks to their bright yellow color, we could spot them (relatively) easily.

Another mushroom we left behind.  Cute thing though.

Hard to make out but that black, blobby thing is a mushroom aka fungus.

Those white blobs.....fungus but not edible mushrooms.

Turned out Andris is a photography buff too so he was whipping out his camera and taking shot after shot of mushrooms. I didn't feel so bad about holding anyone back with my photo taking!

Mushroom geek :-)

Beautiful woods.

Bro developed eagle eyes for finding mushrooms.  Can you see the one he's holding?

The guys were filling up our basket fast!

If the cap was not *perfect*, we didn't pick the mushroom.

Andris was constantly teaching us about something or other. 

He really enjoys foraging for mushrooms.

Mushroom sliced in half to show us what a *perfect* mushroom looks like.

Showing us what to look for.

A perfect mushroom!

The basket was starting to fill up. At one point, Andris happened upon a local woman foraging.

She had only been out for about an hour but already had two plastic bags filled with mushrooms. According to Andris, she was picking mushrooms for sale. Apparently, there are consolidators if you will who will buy mushrooms from independent foragers and then take them to the market for sale. She only gets a few lats per kilo but given how much she can gather in an hour, it's not a bad way to make some pocket change and get some exercise in as well.

A fellow forager showing Andris her finds.

Andris was thrilled when she offered to give us one of her prized finds - an Aspen bolete. Apparently quite rare because you can only find it growing around the aspen trees. Indeed it was an unusual colored mushroom - quite pretty in its own unique way.

Andris holding up the Aspen bolete.

We thanked the woman for her gift to us and continued our trek through the woods.  The world of mushrooms continued to unfold before us.  Such amazing variety; I've never seen so many different kinds of mushrooms and fungi in my entire life!

A teeny, weeny, puffball.

A pair of trumpet like mushrooms.

I loved the trees!

A member of the poisonous Amanita family!

Looks like a porcupine.

Tiny, cute and tempting but we didn't pick these mushrooms.

Basket filling up.  The Aspen bolete is safely tucked in among a lot of other mushrooms.

The caps of the bolete turning blue; still safe to eat.

It's amazing how time flies when you're foraging for mushrooms. The guys were really getting into the act and several times, they were off in different directions. I tried to make sure I kept both in view at all times so someone aka Bro wouldn't get left behind and end up getting lost. That would have been very bad.

The two guys really got into the foraging; completely losing track of time.

Very unusual fungi.  Had hairy looking undercaps.

Looking like a clam shell clinging to a rock.  Just as hard to the touch as a clam shell.  Pretty colors.

All white.  The only ones we saw that looked like this. Simple beauty.

A bolete but an old one.  You can see the spongy undercap; boletes don't have gills.

Everyone's eyes were focused on the ground.

I was amazed how Bro could spot the tiniest of mushrooms - he often can spot me :-)

It was a picture perfect day for a walk through the woods.

As time passed, our basket got filled with  mushrooms of different varieties.

Mushrooms so, so, so small I had a hard time taking a picture of them!

Peeking out from a crack in a tree trunk.

Cute button like mushrooms.

It's also berry season in his part of the world.  Every now and again, we'd stumble on bush with ripe berries.  Very flavorful but also VERY tart!

But it is about the mushrooms.  Here's an old bolete....see the holes in the spongy undercap?  Not one to pick.

Basket not yet filled but how pretty is this?  I can't wait to eat these mushrooms!

Looks like a microphone.

Doesn't take long for a mushroom to crop up - the wood is still fresh. 

A mushroom that has been overtaken by another fungus.

A bolete.  It may not be pretty but it sure is tasty.

Another cluster of unusual mushrooms....tiny spikes on top of the cap.

Another pair of squidgy looking mushrooms.

Tall pine trees.  You can see how easy it was to walk among them.

Notches indicate that resin was harvested from this tree. have to smell a mushroom to really appreciate it!  A special find for
Andris.  I don't remember what mushroom this was but he was thrilled to come
upon a small patch of them!

Through the woods we went.  Notice how filled the basket is now?

Deep purple beauty.

It was mid  afternoon before we had filled up our basket but it was indeed filled to the brim - mainly with chanterelles and boletes. I don't know what it was like for Andris as mushroom foraging is a regular activity for him but Bro and I had a really fun time!

We finally called it quits when our basket looked like this. 

From the woods, we made our way back to the road that led to our car.  I was surprised that we actually made our way back as it felt like we were just wandering through the woods. Obviously (and thankfully), Andris knew where he was going! :-)

I see our car!

We got back into the car and headed down the road.  The first thing I did when I got into the back seat was to check my head for ticks.  Yes, we've been in the woods for several hours and I could've and in fact, DID pick up one!  I was thumbing my fingers through my hair when I felt a lump just behind my right ear.  I grabbed it with my fingers and carefully looked at it.  Yep, it was tick.  Luckily, it had not burrowed in to my skin so I was okay.  I rolled down the window and carefully let it go.  Whew!

We hadn't gotten very far down the road before Andris spotted the crates of apples sitting alongside the road. In the Latvian countryside, anyone who has anything extra to spare just leaves it in a basket outside their home and anyone is welcome to whatever is in the basket. Payment of any sort is not required nor even expected. Apples grow like weeds here so instead of wasting the excess fruit, this home owner, like many others, just offers it up for the taking.  I like that attitude - share the extra rather than letting the apples rot on the ground.

Andris helping himself to some apples, the homeowner watching over him.

Andris had us pull the car over and park. We then followed him to the crates and helped ourselves to some apples. I was just going to try one and if it was good, take a couple more to eat later. Bro had the same idea. Then, all of a sudden, the home owner appeared. Andris spoke with him in Latvian - probably explaining to him what he was doing hanging out with two Asians. Before we knew it, the home owner disappeared and returned a short while later with an empty plastic bag in hand. He wanted us to take as many apples as we wanted. They were really tart apples and a bit mealy. Not my cup of tea but Bro didn't mind so he took quite a few of them. Organic apples for free. I guess that's not bad.

They're definitely organic :-)......and very, very, very tart!

Bro aka the Fruit Obsessed one couldn't resist.  The kind homeowner came back with a plastic bag for us to hold our apples in.

By now, it was well past lunch time and since we already had a full basket of mushrooms, there really was no need for us to go to the second foraging location as Andris had planned. Besides, I was starting to feel a bit sorry for the guy knowing that he still had two hours to travel to get home after leaving us in Riga. He didn't seemed bothered though - looked like he was enjoying himself.

The restaurant, on the right.

Bro carried our bounty of mushrooms with him.

We were surrounded by farmland, a very picturesque location.

In any event, following Andris instructions, we ended up in a local restaurant, Kungu Rija, for a late lunch. The guys kicked off their meal with glasses of kvass, a local soda that sorta, kinda, if you really imagine hard, tastes like Coke. It's definitely a bit of an acquired taste - nothing bad or odd, just a wee bit different.

Sipping kvass.

 I had a super satisfying meal of barley cooked with braised pork served with a sour cream sauce and a half of a head of roasted garlic. Andris had handed our basket over to the kitchen and asked them if they would cook up some of our mushrooms in traditional Latvian style. That meant in sour cream. It was a perfect accompaniment to my pork dish though it was so rich I could only handle a small portion. The mushrooms were meaty and so flavorful - the farm raised stuff I buy in my local supermarket can't come close to comparing. No wonder foraging for these woodland gems is such a popular past time here!

My dish of pork and rice served with roasted garlic and sour cream.

A Latvian classic - wild mushrooms cooked in cream and sour cream.

We didn't rush through lunch but it was getting late in the day. We headed back to town right afterwards, no stops of any kind along the way. Back at the Elizabete, we headed to the patio outside our window. There, Andris sorted the mushrooms. I figured I could dry the boletes and the chanterelles and bring them home with me so I took all those and left the others for Andris which he was thrilled to have. Basically, I took the *cheap/common* mushrooms off his hands and left him with the more desirable, at least for a Latvian, mushrooms. We walked Andris back out front and got his contact information before we bid him goodbye. I also left him with a bit of a tip. He was such a nice guy and really made our foraging experience a truly enjoyable and memorable one.

Sorting through our finds.  We kept the chanterelles and boletes and Andris kept the rest.

Back in our room, I sorted the mushrooms and laid them out to dry. Such a foodie I am and Bro kindly puts up with my whackiness. Since we had just had a huge lunch, neither one of us was particularly hungry. Bro was happy to just munch on apples.

Mushrooms drying on handout I got from the pharmacy last night :-)

Bro's collection of Latvian apples.  Hmmmm.....I'm not sure about this.

We ended our second full day in Riga with the usual nightly duties and planning the next day. I'm really glad I didn't do much planning for this trip as it has given Bro good opportunity to chime in on things of interest to him and I'm glad to say that he is an active contributor.

So far, the trip is going well and I keep my fingers crossed that we will continue to have a trouble free journey as we go on our drive through the Baltics and that we have nothing but enjoyable experiences all along the way!

Tomorrow, we're going on a short road trip to see some places outside Riga city limits.

Good night from Riga!