The Swedish summer may be short-lived, with only a few months of warm, sun-filled days and nights, but the Swedes certainly make the best of it. Most will take the bulk of their five weeks annual leave during July and August, spending as much of it out in nature as possible, either in the countryside or by the sea at summer houses, camping or sailing.
The inevitable arrival of autumn is therefore always slightly sorrowful. Boats are hauled up to land for the winter, houses shut down and sun loungers folded up. But once summer has been put aside for another year, any remorse is quickly replaced with a Swedish can-do attitude. Shops, restaurants and theatres reopen after summer closures, pencils are dutifully sharpened and everyone gradually gets back into their routines. However, a connection to nature is still retained even through the colder months. The Swedes would never let a little something like a drop in temperature stop them from getting out and about, especially as autumn is a favourite time for hikes, walks and family excursions.
Despite a rapidly growing population and expanding urban areas, forests still cover 53% of the country. In the late summer and early autumn these are littered with goodies – berries, mushrooms, wild herbs, they all come into season and are at their plumpest, ripest best towards the end of August and into October. These are the months when Scandinavians can practice the foraging that is so deeply engrained in their heritage and has made their cuisine famous the world over.
In part this is due to Allmänsrätten. Literally translating as ‘every man’s right’ and similar to the Right to Roam, the law grants all of the population access to all of Sweden’s land. And while there’s an exemption for private homes and gardens, stopping strangers marching past your window, it does mean that there is a opening up of areas that would otherwise be inaccessible and a feeling of collective ownership. It also gives Swedes the right to camp in forests and fields and to pick flowers, mushrooms and berries grown in the wild, provided they do not have a protected status. Allmänsrätten does not come without responsibility, however – the maxim ‘do not disturb, do not destroy’ is engrained in every Swede from a young age.
Extreme poverty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries turned a starving Swedish population into excellent foragers and preservers. Pickling, curing, jamming and smoking were ways to ensure food in the colder months from the abundance freely available during the summer. Berries in particular were prized for jam making, especially native varieties like blueberries, cloudberries and lingonberries with their high acid content.
Also known in English as cowberries, lingonberries are jewel-like fruits that resemble red blueberries. The Swedes love these tart tasting berries heavily sweetened and the quickest and simplest way to prepare them is to make rårörd lingonberry jam. Literally translating as ‘raw-mixed’ the berries are simply mashed and mixed with sugar. Preparing them this way preserves all their nutrients and zingy taste. Lingonberries are most famous as a condiment for meatballs, but in Sweden they are just as likely to be found sharing a plate with game dishes and with offal such as fried liver and blood pudding. They are also delicious in puddings like waffles, cheesecakes, ice cream and mousse.
Swedish blueberries, not to be confused with their white-fleshed American cousins, have bright purple centres and are known in English as bilberries. They can be found in forests, on mountain tops and even scattered along the coastline. Picking blueberries is a right of passage – every Swedish child knows the joy of a blueberry crumble or pie and there’s even a nursery rhyme about collecting them. Blueberry soup, a warm smoothie-like drink, is another favourite and is even handed out to contestants in Vasaloppet, the world’s longest and oldest cross country skiing race which takes place annually in Dalarna in Northern Sweden. In Swedish, to call someone a blueberry means that they are an amateur or beginner, a saying thought to derive from the race. Apparently, less well-trained skiers stop at each blueberry soup station, spilling a bit every time and gradually turning their shirts tell-tale purple.
Mushroom picking is also national obsession and part of the foraging heritage. The most common types to pick are girolles, trumpet chanterelles and ceps. A mushroom enthusiast is particularly pleased when there’s been a spell of rain, as this encourages them to grow. Most mushrooms in Sweden grow in the forest, generally under trees or near rockier patches, away from blueberry or lingonberry bushes. They tend to be found in clusters, so if you spot one, there’s a fairly good chance more are on their way. Swedes are notoriously secretive about their favourite mushroom spots and won’t reveal the location to anyone else for fear of rival pickers coming along and stealing the harvest.
Many books, radio, TV programs and even folk songs have been dedicated to the art of mushroom picking and every year, the newspapers report on how the year’s weather has impacted numbers. These days there are even apps to help you identify the right mushrooms. Girolles in particular are prized and known as the ‘forest’s gold.’ They have become a popular mushroom to pick as they are easily identifiable and though there are similar-looking, impostor or ‘false’ girolles they are not poisonous, but will leave a horrible, bitter taste if consumed.
In Sweden, foraging is a family affair and you will often see parents with small children in the woods, dressed in head-to-toe outdoor garb and wellies, carrying baskets. These excursions are known as utflykt and generally involve long walks and picnics, even when the sun isn’t shining. Grilling hot dogs over fires is also popular as well as bringing thermoses full of hot chocolate, sandwiches and the all important cinnamon bun for fika (the Swedish art of sitting down to a cup of coffee and something sweet). It’s a great excuse to get outside and enjoy what nature has to offer, using all of the senses, before winter creeps in and drives everyone, grumbling, inside for the next few months.