In June 2015, our son, Adam, married his bride, Anna, next to a lake in the Latvian countryside. The partying went on for two days and was partially described in a previous story, “Letting Go in Latvia”.
The women in our daughter-in-law’s family–mother, aunt, grandmother–invited me to return to Riga for mushroom hunting season in September. Foraging the forest for edible fungi is an anticipated annual event for the extended Russian family.
The lack of language on both sides [no Russian-me; basically no English-them] was slightly daunting. But then I realized it would be crazy to pass up an adventure like this. Think of the advantages: I would forge a new Russian/American alliance. I would participate in an ancient survival skill involving tools and hunting. And I would learn to avoid poisonous fungi that could upset international family relations.
Arriving in Riga, I was hosted to a private tour of the old city and it’s history. My guide, a young Latvian woman, spoke fluent English. Anna’s mother, Tania, who speaks a little English but not confidently, acted as my personal photographer. She texted many photos of me around city landmarks and sites to her daughter.
Like many small Eastern European countries, Latvia has a complicated history. In the beginning it was purely Pagan. Then Germanic people arrived bringing Christianity to the old world mix. They set up shops and churches and a new form of civilization. There were also influxes of settlements of Poles, Finns, and Russians.
After WWI, from 1918-1940, Latvia had a brief, twenty-two year period of complete independence. The Russians returned in 1940. Then, the Germans replaced the Russians until WWII ended. In 1945, the Russians ran the Germans out for the last time. The Soviet Period lasted until 1991. Finally, Latvia underwent its’ second independence with the breakup of the USSR. The post-Soviet years began.
In 1991, a new law stated that in order for citizens of Russian heritage to receive Latvian passports they must learn both the language and history of the country. Many chose not to, as they were past school age, raising families or trying to get by working their everyday jobs. Anna’s maternal grandmother, Vera Gorbacova, is one example. She was born on the eastern edge of Latvia near the current border with Russia. She raised two daughters with her husband and worked in a factory. She never learned to speak Latvian. The family’s mother tongue is purely Russian.
Mushroom hunters in Latvia are a devoted cult. The day of the hunt has its’ own rituals. As foragers, the women have favorite forest landscapes where they return many times each season. Mushrooms are best harvested in cool, rainy weather where fungi grow plentifully in mossy groundcover, under trees, rocks, and leaves.
Early fall of 2015 was unseasonably warm and sunny . I didn’t need to dress traditionally in rubber boots or even wear a coat. We left Riga mid-morning and drove 45 minutes outside the city to the secret woods. My guides, Tania, her sister Olga and their friend Edita, my translator, needed to do some serious sleuthing to find forest treasures that day.
I was given my own set of tools–a basket holding a knife for harvesting and a purple plum for energy. I was shown how to cut mushrooms close to the ground with the special blade. Off we went, fanning out to cover maximum territory.
The woods were not particularly dense, but if I wandered out of visual range I would hear a plaintive “Wennndeeeeey, where are you?” These women were not about to lose an American in a Latvian forest. I tried to stay within their comfort range.
Olga is particularly gifted in guiding the hunt. She would search an area alone and then call me over to do the actual picking. Or cutting. But I really liked finding some little nest of mushrooms on my own. However, when I showed them off proudly, Olga threw most of them back on the ground because they were too small. Or they were, well-poisonous.
One of the great parts of the day was when we returned to the car for lunch. A tailgating party! From the open trunk came a delicious little feast you could hold in one hand. No plates or napkins necessary. Silvery smoked fish covered squares of sliced black bread, a hardboiled egg, and a freshly sliced wedge of red tomato. Hot black tea was passed around to drink. Lunch looked like a beautiful still life painting–in my hand.
Lunch was followed by two more hours of hunting and then a shower before meeting at Tania’s to cook dinner. My translator extraordinaire from that point on was the vivacious Julia, married to the very patient Juris who would not take a drink of alcohol during our time together because he was responsible for the safety and chauffeuring of “precious cargo”. You have to love a man like that!
Tania was cleaning mushrooms when we arrived, and her technique is meticulous. They must be completely peeled–head to stem. [Thus, the bigger, the better means less overall work for more result.] If the inside of the stem was not perfectly white when you looked at it from the bottom it meant that worms had invaded. These were immediately discarded as unacceptable. After peeling, mushrooms are rinsed and drained in a colander.
While the cleaning is tedious, the cooking is easy. Slice and chop stems and heads into random sized pieces. Sauté a diced onion in olive oil. Add mushrooms and cook on medium/high heat. Keep the water that is released and stir it around to steam them.
Then, drain the water. Add some butter. Add two big spoonfuls of solid cream [like crème fraîche]. Add salt. Serve immediately. [I would add a generous grind of fresh pepper or even some red pepper flakes. Not Russian at all.]
While Tania was preparing our meal of roast duck, fried potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and sliced tomatoes, Julia was introducing me to the finer points of drinking vodka, Russian style. It should be consumed in shots and always with traditional food pairings.
First the vodka is frozen. Pour into a shot glass. Drink the shot. Immediately eat a tiny piece of black bread covered by oily fish, onion, and tomato. Or, take a shot, followed by a pinch of warm fried potatoes and some pickled cabbage. Either way–completely satisfying. No side effects.
It was a forever memory to be in the midst of these fun, generous, loving women [and Juris as our protector]. We ate and talked and laughed while Julia entertained us with her hilarious antics.
A cultural turning point unexpectedly occurred at evening’s end. For dessert we had eaten sweet watermelon chunks with our fingers. This reminded me of a story Anna told me from her childhood. So I shared it with the others.
When Tania and Sergei would go out on summer evenings leaving her at home, Anna would slip out of the apartment and go to the market with saved coins. She would pick out a big ripe watermelon and lug it home. Managing to cut it in two pieces, she ate one whole half, by herself, with a spoon, on the sofa, watching TV, down to the rind. Seeds and all!
As I finished telling the story, everyone glanced down at their dessert plates. On every other plate there were two, maybe three watermelon seeds, idly dropped. On my plate, there was a black and white mountain of seeds because I had carefully picked them out. Every one of them.
I quietly covered my plate with a napkin. But it was too late. The women watched, and then–they erupted, in unison, in uproarious, mirthful laughter. And so did I.
As it turned out, Glasnost prevails. Around this cross cultural table of Anglo/Russian women we laughed long and hard–and saw each other clearly.