Editor’s Note: This is the seventh post in the Environmental Histories of Foraging series edited by Nicole Miller. You can read other posts in this series here.
It seems unlikely that a Frenchman could become the king of Sweden, however, that unlikely event occurred in the 19th century. French soldier Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was elected Crown Prince of Sweden in 1810, and upon the death of Swedish King Karl XIII in 1818, he was crowned king. Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte became known as Karl XIV Johan. One of the subtle consequences of appointing a French king in Sweden was the introduction of elements of French culture and cuisine. For one, Karl Johan attempted to farm Boletus edulis (Penny Bun) at the castle in order to have easy access to the mushroom he loved back home, although the reports of his success are mixed.1 In a country where mushrooms were relatively ignored, a prominent figure advocating for their edibility could have a great impact. This is evident in the fact that Boletus edulis is still colloquially referred to as “Karljohan” today in Sweden. In the 1800s mushroom recipes with marked French influence also began appearing more frequently in Swedish cookbooks.2
Equally influential on a developing interest in mushrooms were the 18th century works of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, which tangentially included mushrooms, as well as the focused efforts of Swedish mycologist Elias Fries whose research highlighted mushrooms and their potential edibility.3 From 1867 – 1869 Sweden suffered a famine due to an early frost and subsequent drought. The famine most affected the rural population, and Sweden’s Patriotic Society offered the cost-effective solution of promoting mushrooms as a free and accessible food option. A small, illustrated brochure was created that highlighted the foodworthiness of mushrooms in the forests, however, an unfamiliarity with the food combined with unclear instructions and a fear of poisoning left the efforts to promote mushrooms unsuccessful.4 The rural population regarded mushrooms as animal food (and later also “nobility food”)5, and a resentment for urban aristocracy encouraging people in the countryside to eat animal fodder led to a resistance to eating mushrooms for years to come.6 However, one mushroom that managed to not only evade this strong opposition but slowly, over the course of 100 years, gained a nearly unanimous appreciation in Sweden was the yellow chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius).
Unsurprisingly, mushroom foraging’s popularity was not derived out of an appreciation for a last-resort famine food. Instead, upper class interest in natural history collecting and trying novel cuisines slowly spread to the middle class in their leisure activities. In the early 1900s the idea of Swedish retreats like the fritidshus (holiday home) began to take shape, as the countryside was increasingly associated with simple, rustic holidays for the middle and upper class. Since the 1890s Swedish national romanticism had been growing, positioning a revival of rural folk culture as a significant part of the country’s national identity.7 The right to vacation time was written into Swedish law in 1938, and since World War II the term allemansrätt (all people’s right) was also included in law allowing everyone public access to nature, including the right to pick berries, mushrooms, and wild plants. The framing of free time and free access meant looking for mushrooms became popular not because of starvation, but as a means for enjoyment. The coalescence of these trajectories allowed mushrooms to become embedded in a cultural and national history of outdoor leisure time.
The biggest obstacle to picking mushrooms was, however, their correct identification. Legitimate fears of poisoning prevented new foragers from enthusiastically eating any species. In order to truly enjoy collecting mushrooms, an ability to identify their species was necessary. Education about mushroom collecting took place in schools and in clubs. Mushroom identification books, courses, exhibitions, and excursions were all part of a growing excitement about collecting mushrooms in Sweden in the 20th century.8 Illustrations and small molded samples were sometimes distributed as a way to draw attention to multiple sensory aspects of mushrooms. Overall, a combination of experiential knowledge and pedagogical materials were implemented through a variety of channels which shaped mushroom collecting into a cultural pastime.
The Winning Experience
“These mushrooms are not the product of my labour, and because I have not toiled and worried over them, they jump into my hands with all the pleasures of the unasked for and the unexpected. For a moment, my tired load of guilt is absolved, and, like a lottery winner, I am alight with the sweetness of life itself.”Anna Tsing, 2012, p.142 9
The chanterelle happens to be one of the easiest and lowest risk mushrooms to identify in Sweden. Perfect for beginners. It has no highly toxic or deadly doppelgangers in Scandinavia.10 Chanterelles are usually free of insects and abundant in forests throughout the whole country. They have a unique appearance and smell, and as a result, the description of the chanterelle had the potential to be spread by word of mouth: a golden yellow, trumpet-shaped mushroom with a meaty texture and a distinctive fruity, apricot-like smell. There is nothing else in the forest that can be found meeting this description. If one had wanted to begin to pick mushrooms in Sweden, the chanterelle was an easy, delicious, and safe mushroom to begin with. As a result, interest in collecting it grew alongside a developing culture of outdoor leisure.
The image of the mushroom met the conditions necessary to be widely circulated visually and verbally. Its unusual appearance also allowed room for a romanticized idea of nature to carry its highly sensory description far and wide – prominent aspects of taste, smell, and form allowed a number of points to be certain for correct identification. Certainty in identification is a quality that many mushrooms lack, but this attribute is highly important for inducting new beginners into the experience of mushroom foraging. In 1915, after continuous efforts encouraging children and the rural population to pick mushrooms to sell in cities, chanterelles were the only mushroom that had been widely accepted enough as edible and safe to be sold in the main square of Gothenburg.11 The chanterelle’s ability to be easily described and identified is evident today in the fact that hardly anyone within Sweden is unaware of its ubiquitous presence. In a recent foraging study of 100 participants, 98 noted that they collect chanterelles, and they rank as the most popular and most common mushroom in Sweden.12
From July through October, Sweden becomes inundated by subtle signs of a feverish passion for chanterelles, which are endearingly referred to as the forest’s gold. They are sold by the kilo in supermarkets and by informal mushroom sellers alike. The economic trading of chanterelles has ensured they are culturally present every year – in stores and in favorite dishes; their taste as well as their image lingers in the imagination. Although for some there is a financial incentive to collect chanterelles and sell them, hunting chanterelles for pleasure is an extremely common activity among those with no economic motivations. When passing forests, mushroom hunters wearing rubber boots can be seen rustling through the trees and emerging with buckets, bags, and baskets of gold. Newspapers begin to report each year on the biggest finds, both in quantity and in size. Social media groups buzz excitedly with posts about discovering treasure troves of chanterelles. Tips are shared about how to find them, what trees and landscapes they like, how to cook them, and in what parts of the country they are currently easy to harvest due to weather conditions. Foragers applaud each other on their luck and console one another when they are unlucky. They share photos of their “trophies” prepared and ready to be eaten. Youtube videos depict the hunt for chanterelles, where on good days 20 kilos or even 150 kilos may be found.
“My husband was driving and as I looked out of the window I swear I saw a whole row of large chanterelles up on a ridge. I screamed at him to stop, hurtling myself out of the door the second the wheels stopped and just scrambled up the slope. There were an unbelievable amount of chanterelles, really big, firm, fragrant, all waiting. Luckily I had one of those mesh fruit bags in my pocket and I filled it to the brim with chanterelles in less than five minutes.”13
The above quotation expresses the mood and intensity that accompanies chanterelle season. An enthusiasm for finding hidden treasure – the forest’s gold – can be felt in the air as a seasonal history unfolds each year. Despite a past of indifference and even disdain for mushrooms as a food item in Sweden, the chanterelle, with its aesthetic shape and color, managed to carve out an affectionate space in the hearts of those that hunt it. Eyes easily light up when recalling “the winning experience” of discovering a forest-filled with chanterelles. It is strange to imagine that 300 years ago, when the now-beloved chanterelle was relatively unknown, it may have quietly profilerated in the forests, blanketing the ground completely unnoticed. Now, anticipation builds each year for chanterelle hunters, when finally during late summer reconnections are made to secret mushroom places of past years that have brought a joyous victory. Knowledge about mushroom spots is often carefully protected, sometimes only shared between family members.
Photographs taken in September 2023 by @kungkantarell. He collected a record 150 kilograms of chanterelles in three days. In total this season he has (so far) collected 290 kilograms. Photographs used with the permission of the creator.
The historical conditions of abundance, easy identification, and a national culture of outdoor recreation and allemansrätt, enabled chanterelles to emerge as a culturally significant species. The search for the forest’s gold is not just a material quest but a way to maintain long traditions of regular contact with the local environment. Both old favorite spots and new, unfamiliar forests are explored when hunting for “gold”. The process of searching for chanterelles involves careful observation of ecosystems, growth patterns, and seasonal changes as well as immersion in the forest. These steps require an attunement to the nuances of an environment; the victorious feeling, akin to winning the lottery, results from a joy found in being so deeply connected to one’s environment. “The winning experience” of finding the forest’s gold is ultimately rooted in an emotional connection to nature. And if one is lucky, if the somewhat unpredictable forces of nature allow it, they may even be gifted a giant, 10 kilo sack of edible souvenirs to take home.
1 An 1887 Swedish guide to champignon farming makes note of the procedure for Karl Johan’s farming experiments at the castle: Lönnegren, A. V. (1887) Praktisk champignonodling jemte handledning för odling af några andra ätliga svampar. Stockholm: P. A. Norstedt & S:r.
2 By the late 1800s many Swedish cookbooks had full sections of mushroom recipes. Recipes such as “croûtes på champignons” were common in that they reflected a French influence in their overt usage of French language words and cooking methods. The French term gratin is another example that is prevalent in mushroom recipes.
3 See for example: Fries, E. (1860) Sveriges ätliga och giftiga svampar, tecknade efter naturen. Stockholm: Norstedt.
Fries, E (1821) Systema mycologicum Vol. 1. Lundae.
4 Hirell, A. (2013) Den svenska matsvampens historia: nedslag och utvikningar från 1600-tal till nutid. Stockholm: Carlsson, pp. 105-108.
5 Egardt B. (1954) Svenskarna och svampmaten. Rig,37, pp. 33-44.
6 Hirell, A. (2013) Den svenska matsvampens historia, pp. 107-112.
7 Barton, H.A. (2002) ‘The silver age of Swedish national romanticism, 1905-1920’, Scandinavian Studies, 74(4), pp. 505-520.
8 Hirell’s book The Swedish Edible Mushroom’s History provides a comprehensive overview on the history of exhibitions, excursions, and clubs that promoted mushrooms in Sweden. Hirell, A. (2013) Den svenska matsvampens historia.
9 Tsing, A.L. (2012) ‘Unruly edges: mushrooms as companion species’, Environmental Humanities, 1(1), pp. 141-154.
10 There are many species of chanterelles. I refer here to the common yellow chanterelle in Europe, Cantharellus cibarius. In North America there are poisonous mushrooms that resemble chanterelles, including the bioluminescent jack-o’-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius).
11 Hirell, A. (2013) Den svenska matsvampens historia, p.218.
12 Svanberg, I. and Lindh, H. (2019) ‘Mushroom hunting and consumption in twenty-first century post-industrial Sweden’, Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 15(1).
13 This quotation was provided in response to a survey I distributed in Sweden. The response by the participant was triggered by a prompt to recall a favorable mushroom collecting experience.
Note: The content of this series should not be taken as advice for edible or medicinal uses of specific species. We do not advise consuming the species discussed. Incorrect identification of species and incorrect preparations can be toxic and sometimes deadly. Foraging should be done only with adequate education, instruction, and caution. If you are interested in foraging it is highly advised for safety (and to gain experience) that you should take a course with an expert if you would like to learn more.
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