Takeaway

The secret art of foraging for food

Raul Dias | Updated on May 29, 2021

Sniffing around: Italy’s prominent truffle hunter​ Giulio Benuzzi forages for the prized fungi with his trained dog Eda​   -  REBECCA MARSHALL

Combining sustainable foraging with socially distant travel is a great way of exploring the world in the ‘new normal’

* To experience and appreciate foraging in the true sense of the term, one needs to acquaint oneself with the two Swedish concepts of ‘allemansrätten’ or everyman’s right, and ‘lagom’ meaning just the right amount

* Know enough about the plant so that you don’t wipe it out. If you’re out picking morels, then you know you should always leave part of the stem in the ground to produce spores for the next season’s forage

***

Though not exactly an introvert, as a kid I would quite easily be placed somewhere midway on the weirdness spectrum. Growing up, I had plenty of quirks. One of them was a penchant for drifting away to find “my own space” on family picnics and school hikes. My Garboesque need for self-company came to the fore on our annual monsoon vacations to the family’s ancestral home in the south Goan village of Cavelossim. Almost every humid afternoon, I would happily wander off into the thick forest that our home’s backyard gradually morphed into.

It was there that I would pick the ripe black mulberries, eating fistfuls of them and thereafter staining my clothes a lurid purple. On some days, I would lob rocks at the guava trees in the hope of divesting them of some of their juicy bounty. But every day my keen, bespectacled eyes would always be on the lookout for those mini volcano-like termite hills. For it was there that I would find my most favourite of all the forest’s treasures — the alami!

Also called olmi in some Konkani dialects, this prized mushroom — that can sell these days for as much as ₹1,000 a kilo — belongs to the termitomyces genus and can be found only during the monsoon season. Completely symbiotic in nature, these divine tasting fungi, which find a prime position in a rare, all-vegetarian coconut milk-based hooman curry among other delicacies, always grow in the company of other organisms. In this case, termites. And, yes, even the occasional snake, as my great aunt Flory would perpetually warn me. But she also had a simple solution to this: “Make sure to perform the tallo firoy,” she would advise me. “Brush the termite hill with a leafy branch. This way, any hidden snakes can slither away, leaving you free to start harvesting the alamis.”

And that is how I got initiated into the realm of two very au courant and topical subjects: Sustainable foraging and socially distant travel. Both holding me in good stead as I navigated my way through life as an itinerant food and travel writer during a pandemic.

Foraging 101

On a recent trip to Sweden I learnt that in order to experience and appreciate foraging in the true sense of the term, one needs to acquaint oneself with the two very interesting and purely Swedish concepts of allemansrätten and lagom. The former, meaning “the right to public access”, refers to the freedom granted under the Swedish Constitution to roam and forage on any land in the country. However, it comes with a clause. Lagom, the latter, means “just the right amount”.

Roam free: Swedish forager Lena Engelmark Embertsén warns against wiping out plants while foraging in the wild   -  TINA STAFREN / VISIT SWEDEN

 

Both terms magically manifested themselves one autumn afternoon as I found myself out foraging for mushrooms with one of Sweden’s most prominent foragers, Lena Engelmark Embertsén. A quick 90-minute ride by train from the capital Stockholm brings me to Lena’s farm Högtorp gård in the idyllic Sörmland region. Here she produces a wide range of spruce oils made from fresh, hand-picked spruce and juniper shoots. She forages for these along with her favourite mushrooms in the forests and meadows that surround her vast property.

“There are a few very basic foraging tenets,” Embertsén explained, as she carefully inspected the underbelly of a wood ear mushroom. “Number one is only forage for produce that you know for certain is safe.” So, for mushrooms, the number one rule is easy: If the top and the underside are of the same colour, leave it as it is. Only, if say the fungus has a white top and a brown underside (and vice-versa), is it safe for consumption.

Forest surprise: Mushrooms are safe for consumption only if the fungus has a white top and a brown underside, or vice versa   -  TINA STAFREN / VISIT SWEDEN

 

Another, very important rule, channelling the lagom concept is to take just as much as you need. “Know enough about the plant so that you don’t wipe it out. So, if you’re out picking morels, then you know you should always leave part of the stem in the ground to produce spores for the next season’s forage,” Embertsén said.

Mushroom trail

Speaking of morels (or gucchis as they are known as in India), my introduction to these honeycomb-meets-tripe-like-headed, super-expensive (around ₹50,000 a kilo) fungi a few weeks ago was a serendipitous one. Cancelled due to inclement weather, my early morning white water rafting expedition along the tumultuous waters of the Tons river in Mori, Uttarakhand, was quickly substituted with a hike into the dense, coniferous forest abutting our campsite by my guide Kabir.

A member of the Van Gujjar community — the de facto custodians of the forest in places such as Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir — Kabir knew all there was to know about the elusive gucchis. Preferring the cool foothills of the Himalayas, the uncultivatable gucchi grows best during the wet months of March and April. “It is said that thunder causes an upsurge of nitrogen in the soil which then leads to the production of mycelium (the vegetative part of a fungus) which in turn helps speed up the sprouting of gucchis,” Kabir lets me know as we foraged our way through a bunch.

Back at the campsite, equipped with a generous cache of gucchis, Kabir deftly stir-fried them with ghee and a few local herbs and spices. I had never tasted anything quite as earthy and simultaneously meaty.

Black gold

Coming a close second in my opinion, in both the taste and foraging appeal, are the equally elusive black truffles (not the chocolates, but edible fungi). Long before the world hunkered down due to the pandemic, I travelled to the hilly village of Bagno a Ripoli, a little south of Florence, Italy. Forfeiting my prized sleep, I had signed up to join Giulio Benuzzi and his trained Lagotto Romagnolo dog Eda on a 6 am early morning truffle hunt.

Dark gold: Truffles can be found in the shade of oak, hazelnut, chestnut, elm and poplar trees   -  REBECCA MARSHALL

 

As one of Italy’s most respected truffle hunters, Giulio knows this terrain like the back of his hand. He first prodded the lime-saturated, well-drained soil. He then went on to pick up and sniff a fistful of it. “This area is legendary for its black summer truffles called Scorzone whose spores prefer to anchor themselves in soil such as this, where the underlying geology is chalk or limestone. You will find truffles in the shade of oak, hazelnut, chestnut, elm and poplar trees,” he said, as Eda started to furiously dig the loose soil under a juvenile oak tree that seemed to have been recently foraged. “More often than not, newly grown truffles are found in spots where you last foraged. This is because the new truffle spores from the previous ones. But there’s no guaranteeing that. Which is why one can never grow or cultivate truffles.”

The noble funk of the lime-sized truffle that the dog unearthed was intoxication personified. And it is that very same, indescribable allure of the fungi that not just makes the truffle worth its weight in gold, but one that merits sacrificing every second of scarce early morning sleep for!

Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai

Published on May 29, 2021

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