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Escape into nature: a forager’s guide to discovering the forest

Escaping urban life is far easier in Sweden than many countries. The forests, meadows and lakes can seem neverending – plus the ancient rural code known as allemansrätten gives you the right to roam.

Escape into nature: a forager’s guide to discovering the forest
Photo: Elle Nikishkova/Elles Utemat

With the continuing restrictions on social contact, who hasn’t dreamed of getting away from it all and reconnecting with nature? Uppsala, one of Sweden’s most historic cities can be reached from Stockholm in just over 30 minutes, and offers so much more than just a city break.

We spoke to forager, outdoor chef, and food blogger Elle Nikishkova about some of the best places to explore around Uppsala. She shared tips on the joys of discovering the forest through everything from kayaking to mushroom-picking.

Freedom to explore

In Sweden, everyone is invited to explore the country’s natural beauty under the allemansrätten or public right of access. Your freedom to roam applies whether you want to take a hike, a long rural bike ride, a mountain trek – or even pitch a tent for a night under the stars.

Learn more about the sights and experiences on offer in and around Uppsala

You also have a broad right to pick and enjoy flowers, berries and mushrooms. But take note of some exceptions: nothing can be picked in national parks or nature reserves; and some protected species – including all orchids – should never be picked anywhere.

Elle runs courses teaching foraging and outdoor cooking over a fire through her small company Elles Utemat. Her recipes blend organic local ingredients with things picked in the woods.

“Depending on the season we pick different things,” she says. “Now is good for nettles, ground elder, edible flowers, and rowan leaves. 

“On courses, we take different things into our baskets and learn about what’s edible in the forest right now. We can make amazing flower teas or nettle soup with violets.

“In Uppsala and further south you can find more edible things than in the north. In the north, you have spruce, pine and birch trees but here you get all these amazing fruit trees and flowers on the tree that start blooming and you can try them as well.”

Nature awakens

Elle spent her early years in a city in Ukraine and says her passion for nature began after moving to Sweden aged 10. Living “in the middle of the woods” in Umeå, she would explore the forest with her mother and pick mushrooms.

Spring and the months ahead offer a fantastic opportunity to experience and learn about nature.

“Nature is waking up right now,” says Elle. “Beautiful flowers come out in huge numbers around Uppsala; white, blue and yellow flowers. The cherry trees are starting to bloom. In the north, only a few bloom but here you have many and the air fills with these amazing scents.”

Get your guide to nature and outdoor recreation in the Uppsala area

One of her favourite places is Norra Lunsen, a nature reserve south of Uppsala. The area offers many walking trails, which can also be used for mountain biking, and horse-riding trails. In winter, you can go cross-country skiing.

“There’s also a cabin where you can stay,” says Elle. “You can walk there from Uppsala, it’s about 5km to 10km, and there are six beds, a fireplace, fire wood and a water pump.”

She also recommends kayaking and canoeing trips from Uppsala along the Fyris river. Options include going south to Ekoln, the northernmost gulf of Lake Mälaren, or an upstream trip to nearby Ulva Kvarn.

Photo: Aktivt Uteliv.

“When the trees are getting greener, it feels almost exotic,” adds Elle. “It’s almost like when I went paddling in Guatemala. Things look so different from the kayak on the water than when you are walking alongside the river.”

Marvellous mushrooms 

The mushroom season has started – but the best of it lies ahead. Elle is on something of a mission to teach people in Sweden about the wide variety of edible fungi in the country. So great is her love of mushrooms that she is soon due to launch a book about 20 edible species, packed with recipes and interesting facts.

“My Mum is Russian and in Russia, mushrooms have been an important meat substitute during famine or war,” she says. “In Sweden, people generally know two types and walk straight past all these amazing varieties.”

A century ago, she says many Swedes thought mushrooms were “connected to the devil”. Interest is now growing, she adds. But given the dangers, inexperienced foragers should proceed with extreme caution and learn first from experts.

Photo: Elle Nikishkova/Elles Utemat

“The first edible mushroom I pick is usually late May or early June,” she says. “The earliest chanterelles come around midsummer and then boletes. Each month brings new things.

“But you need to know exactly what you’re picking. It’s best to go with someone you can ask questions. I learned from people who tell stories that help you remember different flowers or mushrooms and I always look to give people narratives too.”

Her mushroom-picking courses offer rich rewards. Two hours of foraging may yield 10 to 15 edible species. And you can spend the next two hours frying them and savouring their complexities.

“People get quite amazed by the differences in flavour and texture,” she says. “They’ll say one is like popcorn or remember one that tastes like seafood. If you’re vegetarian and want to spice up your diet, mushrooms are a great way to do that and reduce your intake of imported foods.”

Find out more about visiting Uppsala and the surrounding area when the time is right, including the latest information on events and attractions in the area. 

 
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DISCOVER SWEDEN

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager’s dream

Although parts of Sweden are still under snow at this time of year, spring is in full swing here in Skåne in the south of Sweden. Here are The Local's top tips for what you can forage in the great outdoors this season.

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager's dream

You might already have your go-to svampställe where you forage mushrooms in autumn, but mushrooms aren’t the only thing you can forage in Sweden. The season for fruits and berries hasn’t quite started yet, but there is a wide range of produce on offer if you know where to look.

Obviously, all of these plants grow in the wild, meaning it’s a good idea to wash them thoroughly before you use them. You should also be respectful of nature and of other would-be foragers when you’re out foraging, and make sure not to take more than your fair share to ensure there’s enough for everyone.

As with all foraged foods, only pick and eat what you know. The plants in this guide do not look similar to any poisonous plants, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry – or ask someone who knows for help.

Additionally, avoid foraging plants close to the roadside or in other areas which could be more polluted. If you haven’t tried any of these plants before, start in small doses to make sure you don’t react negatively to them.

Wild garlic plants in a park in Alnarpsparken, Skåne. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Wild garlic

These pungent green leaves are just starting to pop up in shady wooded areas, and may even hang around as late as June in some areas. Wild garlic or ramsons, known as ramslök in Swedish, smell strongly of garlic and have wide, flat, pointed leaves which grow low to the ground.

The whole plant is edible: leaves, flowers and the bulbs underground – although try not to harvest too many bulbs or the plants won’t grow back next year.

The leaves have a very strong garlic taste which gets weaker once cooked. Common recipes for wild garlic include pesto and herb butter or herbed oil, but it can generally be used instead of traditional garlic in most recipes. If you’re cooking wild garlic, add it to the dish at the last possible moment so it still retains some flavour.

You can also preserve the flower buds and seed capsules as wild garlic capers, known as ramslökskapris in Swedish, which will then keep for up to a year.

Stinging nettles. Wear gloves when harvesting these to protect yourself from their needles. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Stinging nettles

Brännässlor or stinging nettles need to be cooked before eating to remove their sting, although blanching them for a couple of seconds in boiling water should do the trick. For the same reason, make sure you wear good gardening gloves when you pick them so you don’t get stung.

Nettles often grow in the same conditions as wild garlic – shady woodlands, and are often regarded as weeds.

The younger leaves are best – they can get stringy and tough as they get older.

A very traditional use for brännässlor in Sweden is nässelsoppa, a bright green soup made from blanched nettles, often topped with a boiled or poached egg.

Some Swedes may also remember eating stuvade nässlor with salmon around Easter, where the nettles are cooked with cream, butter and milk. If you can’t get hold of nettles, they can be replaced with spinach for a similar result.

You can also dry nettles and use them to make tea, or use blanched nettles to make nettle pesto.

Kirskål or ground elder, another popular foraged green for this time of year.
Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Ground elder

Ground elder is known as kirskål in Swedish, and can be used much in the same way as spinach. It also grows in shady areas, and is an invasive species, meaning that you shouldn’t be too worried about foraging too much of it (you might even find some in your garden!).

It is quite common in parks and old gardens, but can also be found in wooded areas. The stems and older leaves can be bitter, so try to focus on foraging the tender, younger leaves.

Ground elder has been cultivated in Sweden since at least 500BC, and has been historically used as a medicinal herb and as a vegetable. This is one of the reasons it can be found in old gardens near Swedish castles or country homes, as it was grown for use in cooking.

Kirskål is available from March to September, although it is best eaten earlier in the season.

As mentioned, ground elder can replace spinach in many recipes – you could also use it for pesto, in a quiche or salad, or to make ground elder soup.

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