Anna Nyman digs at a small patch of leaves, and hands me her find. It’s bishop’s-weed — also known as goutweed and historically used as a gout treatment. “This is one of those plants gardeners hate and we love,” says Nyman. It’s a plant Nyman routinely forages in her job as a guide to Finland’s wild edibles.
Foraging has long been big in Finland, a phenomenon many trace to famine during the Second World War and the deep national poverty afterward that forced many to eat mushrooms, berries and other fauna they found in forests rather than buy food. But in the past five years, foraging has become a signature food trend in Finland — and one that’s spread from the country’s wildest places right into its biggest cities.
Nyman works with Helsinki Wildfoods, a three-year-old company that makes nettle pesto and berry mixes from foraged plants, but also runs workshops in Helsinki, Espoo and other places in Finland to teach people, even city dwellers, about the food options growing in their own backyards. She runs tours of Helsinki’s wild places (in Swedish, Finnish and English), both for Helsinkians who want to forage in their own parks and those who want to be able to identify plants when they go on trips deeper into the wilderness. Three years ago, only a few people attended the walks. Today, the tours are routinely packed with the maximum 15 participants, and the company also runs events for companies, bachelorette parties and birthdays, sometimes with as many as 40 people. Joel Rosenberg, who founded the Harvest Map project in 2009 to mark out edible plants and trees around Helsinki, now runs guided foraging tours around the country and has hundreds of spots marked out on his Helsinki map.
People seem to need multisensory experiences with nature … and foraging offers this.
Joel Rosenberg, Harvest Map project
The emergence of foraging as a food trend is supported by the country’s policies, and by nature. “There’s a green crescent around Helsinki,” explains Finnish chef Sami Tallberg, who’s been a major force behind popularizing foraged food in Finland and has written several cookbooks on the subject. “No matter which direction you take your bike or your feet or your car, you’ll come to wild nature.” Finland protects what’s called “everyman’s right,” meaning people can camp, swim, bathe, fish and forage (with a few exceptions) in all green spaces, even those privately owned.
Nyman takes me to Lapinlahti, a huge oceanside park in Helsinki that was once the grounds of the city’s first mental hospital (now repurposed as a bright, pretty cafe). Within 20 minutes, Nyman — a trained biologist who’s pregnant with twins — spots and explains double-digit numbers of plants, how to prepare them, their medicinal benefits and even weird anecdotes, like that legendary Greek warrior Achilles was said to have healed his soldiers using yarrow.
Foraging can be dangerous — Finland has several deadly poisonous plant species, and Tallberg recommends that those who want to forage educate themselves, whether through a course or using the internet. And city dwellers might have a few extra wrinkles to worry about — Nyman rejects one patch of garlic mustard because it looks like a dog out for a walk may have marked the territory.
But Finland’s cities — even beyond Helsinki, which is a wonderland of parks — are also well suited for urban foraging, says Tallberg, though of course they vary when it comes to accessibility of green space and levels of cleanliness. “This green wild supermarket that I like to call nature is open to all of us,” he says. “Wild food is absolutely everywhere.” The offerings will vary by country, but Tallberg — who’s currently on a wild mushroom kick — says not to discount anything. His current obsession: false morels, a kind of toxic mushroom rejected by most cuisines outside of Finland and Russia but that Tallberg says can be delicious when prepared safely (it involves boiling). Meanwhile, he says, some restaurants focused on foraged food have begun sending staff into green spaces to collect ingredients for the day’s dishes, urging them to connect with nature as well.
To be sure, this isn’t just a trendy thing. For some people, it’s a necessity. Nyman says she hopes more botanical education can help those in Helsinki society who can’t afford food to get their nutrients from the parks around them rather than go hungry — or worse, accidentally eat something poisonous.
Rosenberg says that while finding mushrooms and berries has long been a Finnish tradition, people are now paying more attention to seasonal greens. “People seem to need multisensory experiences with nature, the feeling of being part of it,” he says. “And foraging offers this.” As urbanization increases, people fight back against it by seeking out green spaces where they can — and bringing a little bit home with them. “Maybe the pre-apocalyptic zeitgeist also turns people toward traditional skills and flirting with self-reliant lifestyles like this,” he adds. If it does, Finland is ready to lead the march.