Millions of ceps come up from the ground in Finnish forests every autumn. They have become a hot export item to European buffets. Ceps and other mushrooms offer experiences also on the spot in Finland. The mushroom weekends of Hotel Punkaharju introduce Finnish mushrooms in the forest under the guidance of top experts and serve mushrooms at dinner.
The cep belongs to the treasures of Italian cuisine. Many Italians eat their national delicacy without knowing that it may have come up from the ground far in the northern extremity of Europe, in North Karelia near the border between Finland and Russia. North Karelia with its handsome spruce and pine forests is known as Finland’s mushroom store. Ceps are the kings of the mushroom forest, passionately sought after by gatherers.
Only two decades ago ceps tended to be left in the forest, to be eaten by bears and flies. Local mushroom gatherers passed by the ceps while looking for other mushrooms.
“The cep was known in eastern Finland as the cow’s bolete, because they were said to be good only for cows. Few people collected them for eating. I got to witness that myself when moving from Italy to Joensuu, North Karelia, in the 1980s, after marriage. I was absolutely shocked, when valuable boletes were kicked over for fun in the forest, says Finland’s cep emperor Loreno Dalla Valle.
Such detraction of boletes grabbed the Italian gourmand deep in the heart. Dalla Valle started thinking about exporting ceps to Italy, where they would certainly be in demand. Dalla Valle established collection stations and started to pay real money to gatherers for every high-quality kilogramme of mushrooms. Word got around little by little, as many noticed that mushroom gathering brought a nice income in the autumn.
At present, Dalla Valle’s enterprise has purchase points all around Finland, and thousands of people bring their mushroom catch to Dalla Valle’s scales for weighing. An industrious gatherer can reach a daily catch of 50–60 kilos and hundreds of euros. The mushrooms are sorted, pre-processed, frozen and packed. Then begins their lorry trip through Europe to Italy.
“The mushroom harvest varies from year to year. You can never know in advance whether it will be a good or a bad cep year. We buy an average of 400,000–500,000 kilos of ceps in a season, and 90 per cent of them are exported to Italy. The best cep year so far was 2003, when over 1.1 million kilos of ceps were exported to Italy. Then all of Finland seemed to be taken by cep mania, and there were queues of hundreds of metres at our collection stations”, Loreno Dalla Valle says.
Currently the cep business employs Loreno and his daughters Zelia and Zara and 30–50 seasonal employees around Finland during the mushroom season.
“Finnish cep is in great demand in Italy. It is of very good quality and appearance. In Finnish forests mushrooms have optimal conditions to grow in pure nature. There is an enormous amount of forests in Finland. Only a small fraction of the mushrooms is collected. Now wonder that Finns talk about millions rotting in the forests”, Dalla Valle notes.
Finnish mushrooms can even get a banker excited. Kaavi Porcini, operating at Kaavi in North Savonia, was established by Martti Nyberg, one of the best known economists in Finland. Nyberg, who had made a top career, for example, as chief economist of Nordea bank, left the banking world and established in 2015 Kaavi Porcini, which exports dried Finnish mushrooms to Europe. Like Dalla Valle, Kaavi Porcini buys the mushrooms from zealous gatherers.
“Mushroom gathering is a Finnish folk sport. There is practically an unlimited supply of mushrooms in the forests, and enough for sale too. North Savonian mushroom terrains are good, and there are a lot of keen gatherers. That is why I wanted to establish my enterprise at Kaavi”, says Nyberg.
Kaavi Porcini buys from mushroom gatherers ceps, chanterelles, funnel chanterelles and horns of plenty. All the mushrooms are sliced, dried in powerful driers and packed in beautiful glass jars to be exported around the world.
“Dalla Valle does the exporting of frozen ceps so well that we better specialise in dried mushrooms. They have been very well received in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, France and Belgium, particularly in restaurants in which dried mushrooms are used around the year. In Finland we sell mushrooms through shops to consumers, but restaurants also here have now got excited about them. It is particularly satisfying that our Bocuse d’Or contest chef Eero Vottonen uses our mushrooms in the contest foods. It is not always known in Europe that such culinary treasures grow in Finland’s boreal forests. But once you have tasted them, you immediately want more”, Nyberg assures.
Finland has Everyman’s right, which gives everyone access to the mushroom forest. You may pick mushrooms both in state and private forests without a specific permit as long as you respect inhabited courtyards. There are hundreds of different mushroom species in the Finnish forests. Some of them are lethally toxic. It is not a good idea to pick mushrooms unless you know what you are picking. It is advisable to always go into the mushroom forest with an experienced gatherer.
If you want to get everything possible out of mushrooms, the right address is in Punkaharju in eastern Finland, in the middle of the Finnish national landscape. There Hotel Punkaharju organises mushroom season weekends in the late summer and autumn dedicated to mushrooms, mushroom gathering and mushroom delicacies.
Saimi Hoyer, proprietor of Hotel Punkaharju, pursued an international model’s career for years at the highest top of fashion, from Milan to Paris and London to New York. After starting a family, Hoyer wanted to move back to her childhood scenery in Punkaharju, eastern Finland. When Saimi Hoyer and her husband Thomas heard that the over a hundred-year-old Valtionhotelli (State Hotel) in Punkaharju was for sale, she grabbed the chance.
“I knew that the old hotel could be turned into a world of experiences for guests in a place where Finnish nature, food and culture meet in an interesting way – at the same time I could realise my lifelong passion for mushrooms and mushroom dishes. I already knew from my own experiences abroad that the Finnish forest and mushrooms interest people particularly in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Russia and that many are ready to travel after them, if good opportunities for that are offered”, says Hoyer.
Hotel Punkaharju opened after extensive renovation in the summer of 2016. The same autumn the hotel also organised its first mushroom weekends with mushroom excursions and mushroom dinners.
“The popularity of the mushroom weekends surpassed all expectations. The hotel is located in the middle of magnificent mushroom forests. Last summer, matsutake mushrooms, which are a very expensive delicacy in Japan, grew just next to the hotel terrace. We got Finland’s best mushroom experts to lecture on mushrooms. We can take in 30–35 people at a time in a mushroom weekend. Gourmandise is an essential part of the weekend. With the guests we eat a dinner of six to eight courses made of different mushrooms. That has definitely helped people find the wonderful, rich world of mushrooms”, Hoyer says.
The Hotel Punkaharju kitchen uses offerings of the nearby forests and lakes, particularly mushrooms, as much as possible. The restaurant’s chef Mikko Lahtinen answers for the dishes. Ideas come from Saimi, too, as she has solid experience of mushroom dishes. In 2014, Hoyer wrote together with Petri Salmela the mushroom cookbook “Of mushrooms and men.”
Finland’s best known wild food cook Sami Tallberg also participates in the ideation. He often visits Punkaharju to cook his own dinner menu, in which wild plants and herbs, lake fish and mushrooms play the leading roles.
“Hotel Punkaharju is fast becoming a real mushroom hotel. Last autumn, I had my dream realised of getting a mushroom drink on our menu. The secret of the exciting taste of the “Hostess’s mushroom cocktail”, by our bartender Juha Konttinen, is cognac mixed with mushroom broth and dust”, lauds Saimi Hoyer.
Mika Remes (2017)
Dalla Valle is a family enterprise specialising in the purchase, processing and sale of wild mushrooms and berries.
“Finnish cep is in great demand in Italy. It is of very good quality and appearance. In Finnish forests mushrooms have optimal conditions to grow in pure nature.”
“Mushroom gathering is a Finnish folk sport. There is practically an unlimited supply of mushrooms in the forests, and enough for sale too.”
Kaavi Porcini operates at Kaavi, in the middle of pure Finnish forests.The enterprise uses in its production ceps, chanterelles, horns of plenty and funnel chanterelles gathered from the forest.