Picking chanterelles or “kantareller” is one of the things Norwegians talk about a lot but rarely do…instead they buy them from supermarket shelves like you and I. But still, there is a fantasy about these wet Autumn afternoons, rubber boots on your feet and yellow leaves on the ground, hand in hand with your little kid and his little bucket. “We are going to pick chanterelles today Bjørn-Olav!”. You go to places where you think you saw some last year (or was it 3 years ago?). Damn it some other people came beforehand and took them all! You eventually go home full of pride with anything from 10 sad and old chanterelles to a full bucket of them. Exhausted but so excited you putt them in a shimmering pan with butter and take a picture for all your Instagram friends who will be so jealous.
But for us, foreigners, mushrooms are like snakes. You don’t get near them because some are poisonous and you can never remember which ones. Lucky me, I was taught how to recognize chanterelles by a Swedish expert: the old lady down the road. It only cost me a very boring week in Sweden but it was worth it. This is how the story goes.
After a nasty brain concussion, doctors tell me I need to rest far from the city and avoid computers and TVs to get better. So to get healthy, I decide to move for a week to a cabin in Swedish woods (just like Norwegian woods, just flatter). I get there and indeed, no risk to get a headache here as there is no internet connection, no TV, no people, no parties. In other words, no temptation.
Will I get bored? Probably, but I am still positive (at this point) and convince myself I will go back to Oslo rested by the amazing Swedish country-side. So I find things to do. First I explore the nearest supermarket, an ICA that is so small it looks like a hybel full of food. And I need to walk about 20 minutes to get there, walking through the woods and a Swedish road full of dead mice. And it’s all in Swedish with strange meatbälls with dots everywhere, so it takes me double time to figure out what is written on food packages. There you go half of the day is gone already. Then I turn on the radio, the only entertainment available. I only receive one station, Radio Glava, and it seems like the DJ has a thing for ABBA songs. After 3 days I dream of Chiquitita dancing like a Queen and singing Mamma Mia.
The second day I explore the neighborhood. I find a boring lake and roads ending in the middle of the flat forest. At the end of the second day I have exhausted all possibilities of discoveries. I officially declare this place as the most boring in the whole of Scandinavia (and scarily enough, I am probably wrong). There are little houses and families with dogs and Volvos and clean cut gardens. I tried talking to the neighbour but she takes care of her 3 kids below the age of 4 while her husband works on a ship. She doesn’t even have one minute to waste listening to me. I go to bed and I think to myself I cannot survive another 4 nights and 5 days here. I will die of boredom before the end of this week. But that was before I met my neighbour, the old Swedish kantarel lady.
I saw her getting out of the woods with mushrooms and thought that was a damn good idea, use all these lost hours from Facebook and Youtube to pick mushrooms. So I go to her house the next day and start explaining with big signs and English words that I want her to teach me how to pick mushrooms. She does not speak a word of English, and I don’t speak a word of Swedish…my Norwegian is not helping as I only know how to count at this stage, never got passed the first two lessons of the first book “Ny i Norge”.
Anyway, she lets me in, and after drawing a mushroom and then pretending to eat it, and smiling and rubbing my sotmach, she gets my point. So the next day she shows me how to recognise edible mushrooms from book illustrations: long tail, yellow colour. She sends me in the forest with a big basket. I come back very proud of myself, and she throws every single one of them with a disgust on her face. Some are red, some are a bit rotten (I picked them anyway, who knows maybe they taste great!). As she can see I am not so good at this, she comes with me and shows me how to spot them. There under the “moss”. Then she leaves me on my own and I come back with two full buckets of chanterelles. They are all the right ones, and she explains with signs that I can now go home. I am not used to taking directly from the forest to the pan so I am afraid I need to prepare them in some way, so I listen carefully. She starts explaining something about water, salt, and freezers. I have no idea what she is talking about. No dictionaries, no English speakers around. I go back to my cabin completely clueless and start boiling the mushrooms. then I lay them on cloths all over the kitchen and wait to the next day. Then I freeze them and take them out.
Yes, I wasted a kilo of perfectly healthy, tasty, hand-picked, organic chanterelles. But now I can spot a kantarel a mile away, which was worth a week of nightmare in the country-side of Sweden. And when I cook chanterelles from Lithuania and Poland that I bought in an Oslo-shop because I don’t have time to hand-pick them myself anymore, I cook them in a delicious way, with the right amount of butter, garlic and parsley.