Holding hand-made paper baskets in one hand and a farming tool called cultivator in the other, Finnish forager Anna Nyman guides a group of tourists to Helsinki’s 10-sqkm Central Park. As the dew drops shine on the green, orange and red trees, the 38-year-old naturalist points out the first forest bounty in sight—the tiny, red Lingham berries.
“Go on, collect as many as you can,” Nyman encourages her guests by handing out a pair of gloves each for her two-hour foraging workshop. During these outdoor sessions, she helps participants identify various berries, mushrooms like the russila, milk cap and boletus, fruits and plants, while explaining their health benefits and sharing recipes.
Walking around woods, scanning the area for edible fruits and leaves, and getting your hands muddy, is one of the best ways to discover and experience the natural wealth of the Nordic country, two-thirds of which is covered with thick forests. Where foraging is concerned, Finland follows the concept of ‘everyman’s right’—one in four Finns head out to forage. Anyone can pick flowers, wild berries and mushrooms in natural areas, which are not private, agricultural production fields or nature reserves.
Central Park, like the rest of Finland, is a forest with an abundance of pines, spruces and larch trees, along with berries, mushrooms and different herbs, like wood sorrel, stinging nettle and more. In the land of the midnight sun where the days are dark for over 50 days in winter, foraging is a centuries-old. “My mother and grandmother foraged in the summers to make jams, marmalades, broth, soup and medicines for the harsh winters,” says Neyman. “Finnish people are forest people. We have always gone to nearby woods for food, found great ingredients and cooked them, and passed on the knowledge from one generation to another,” she explains, indicating a large patch of short shrubs of bluebells. With a couple of strokes of her cultivator, she fills her bag with round, blue berries.
A few tourists follow suit. “Berries are great antioxidants,” she says, urging her guests to have some. A microbiology graduate, Nyman has been a full-time forager for 11 years now, and conducts outdoor workshops for tourists and locals during summer, spring and autumn, and indoor sessions in the winter, teaching people to make soaps, medicines and skincare products from foraged ingredients. “Nature is the biggest supermarket, where you don’t have to pay,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes.
She then takes the group deeper in the park to pluck the pretty wood sorrel leaves, which resemble an assemblage of three tiny, green hearts. Also called the forest lemon, the slightly sour-tasting leaves are used in soups and as salad garnishes. A few steps down the path are stinging nettles. “This is the best, most nutritious superfood of Mother Nature,” Nyman says, warning the participants to pluck them using gloves since the leaves pack a sting. Nettles are used to treat muscle and joint pain, eczema, arthritis, gout and anaemia. Another item to forage is the pineapple weed, which tastes like pineapple and is used for garnishing desserts, especially pancakes.
You can also pluck some fresh plums here, straight from the tree, which go with cakes as a sweet and tangy sauce. Nyman is constantly looking for newer places to forage, learning the routes in and out of a forest area, and ensuring she and her guests are never lost. More importantly, she guides one to identify poisonous and lethal foods. “In Finland, we have 50 poisonous mushrooms and 21 such berries, out of which three can kill humans,” she says. But there are many more that are great for health. For instance, the black, rock-like Chaga mushroom is known to be anti-viral and anti-cancerous.
Climate change, though, is making it difficult for foragers, as there is not enough seasonal produce. For example, in the last mushroom season, there was hardly any bounty, making it difficult for people like Nyman to conduct foraging workshops. “We had one of the poorest yields ever,” she says, adding, “I am hopeful for this season though and I am looking forward to foraging with my four-year-old twin sons.”