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Finland Wild Food Festival Trip

Our recent Wild Food Cultural Exchange trip to Ilomantsi in eastern Finland was a rare opportunity to discover a beautiful country full of clean forests, interesting friendly people, bears, wolves, berries and, in fact, a country with no word for foraging as they have an unbroken tradition of collecting food from the land around them. A place that fires the imagination as the vast forests cover the land.

Ilomantsi is a small Finnish village in the north Karelia region of Finland, bordering Russia. The population of Finland, as a whole, is around 5 million - the same as Scotland. However, whereas Scotland has an area of around 7.8 million hectares, Finland is 30.4 million hectares with 23 million hectares of forest! They also have the largest number of organic certified wild food collection forested areas (12 million hectares – 1.5 times the size of Scotland) in the world. So they are in a unique position to be able to sell clean, pure, organic wild foods to the world market.

We attended a couple of interesting presentations from the Finnish Forestry Centre and the Natural Resources Institute of Finland, who talked about their programme to encourage land owners to use the forest for products other than timber, as this is of far greater monetary value. Sadly, the picking of berries has declined in recent generations as people buy more packaged foods. At the festival, I met a larger than life, and much taller than me, retired American basketball player who now lived in Helsinki and was at the festival working on his friend’s stall. He said that he travels all over Finland foraging for berries to be sold in the marketplace and said he could make 10,000 euros “easily”, “it just depends on you getting yourself out there” he said. And with everyman’s right giving anyone in Finland the right to pick anything from the forest floor – berries, mushrooms and herbs – and to sell these tax free – there is really nothing stopping you. Interestingly, Finland imports Thai workers to pick their berries, as the locals mostly just pick for themselves. In fact, after the festival I went for a BBQ with him, and another Finnish friend we made, to a nearby beach. The woodland floor was covered in berry bushes, and he was out into the forest before we even managed to get the kids out of the car. He returned shortly after with 4 punnets: one of bilberries, one of lingonberries, one of red currants and one of black currants! And this was in a ‘bad year for berries’(!), or so everyone kept telling us. And what do people worry about in a bad berry picking year? Bears, obviously! We are in Finland after all…

There are estimated to be around 2020-2130 brown bears in Finland before the autumn hunting season and they mostly like to snack on the forests’ many berries, but when these are in short supply they need to look elsewhere for food, such as farmer’s sheep. Bears were a constant source of interest for us, as the bear craving festival was taking place alongside the wild food festival and we watched the people of Ilomantsi and beyond frantically carving fantastic bear statues from giant logs of wood with their chainsaws; the village was literally a buzz. One of the many highlights of the trip was the bear feast, a glimpse into Finland’s hunting culture. The feast, similar to a burns supper, involved singing and dancing describing the hunting and bringing home of a bear. During the feast, the actors thanked the bear for providing us with food, and I’m not sure why but we were all surprised to find out that we were actually having bear stew for dinner. We were also later rewarded on our final wild walk with a sighting of actual fresh, bright purple, bear poo.

Finland itself ignited my imagination as I imagined what Europe and Scotland would have been like pre-industry, in the days when bears and wolves roamed just out of sight in the deep dark woods. When ‘elf-shot’ was something to fear as you looked beyond your small cleared dwelling into the vast forests surrounding your house and told all sorts of faerie tales while your sheep wandered through the woods and you foraged on vast carpets of berries and mushrooms…

Back in the real world, I wonder as we regenerate and regrow our Scottish forests: although we can never go back to this level of forested land, could we manage our forests in a way to enable the forest floor to thrive? We may not have the same abundance of berries as our forest has been managed in a very different way and stripped for timber, but we still have many of the same varieties of berries, trees and mushrooms, including the main ones they are trying to cultivate – Chaga and Reishi.

It was really fascinating to meet our Finnish hosts and to discover the differences and similarities of our countries and our wild food traditions. The trip gave me the chance to meet and interview a number of Finnish people, all working in different areas – the farmers who allowed their sheep to roam free in the woods, eating a much more varied diet than sheep on single pastures back home, the chefs who enabled us to get to know each other as we went off menu to add more foraged variety to our cooking, the land owners who had their fires burning and waiting for us with a coffee pot and delicious home baking in the middle of the forest, the home brewer forager who showed me how to make beer, the homesteader whom I foraged herbs with for our dinner and whom I discussed creating a future wild food trip to Finland with, the gin distiller who spoke on my podcast of how Finnish people were losing their connection to foraging, the berry forager who spoke of travelling around Finland to pick berries to sell in the market, the Finnish herbalist who spoke of her love for wild Finnish herbs and, finally, the two inspiring girls in Helsinki who had started their own wild food business and were now selling their dried products (like ‘Just add oil and water’ nettle pesto) to markets in Japan and across Europe, recently adding the UK to their market.

Post-Finland, I feel inspired with many different ideas around how to incorporate wild foods into my business, ideas for collaborations, recipes, future podcasts and future trips.


Ilomantsi Wild Food and Bear Carving Festival:

Multi Award winning Artic Blue Gin distillery:

The Helsinki Wild Food Business: Their products can be bought in the UK here:

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