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STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - When Prime Minister Goran Persson wanted to cheer up Swedes enduring the wettest summer for 13 years, he first tried promising more jobs. Then, he hit upon their weak spot: mushrooms.
"We are having a fantastic mushroom year," he enthused.
He may need a more traditional slogan for next year's elections but Persson knows that Swedes' fondness for picking mushrooms -- a summer and autumn hobby shared with other Nordic, Baltic and Russian nature-lovers -- verges on the obsessive.
This summer's weather has been disastrous for sun lovers who normally retreat to Sweden's islands to swim and mess about in boats. But the hot, dry start to the summer followed by persistent clouds and rain was perfect for fungi.
The resulting abundance is front-page news.
"Record year in the mushroom woods", read one newspaper headline while another newspaper gave pride of place to "Mushrooms to Avoid", publishing tips on how to detect poisonous varieties with names like "death cap" and "destroying angel."
While more than 1,000 people a year ring the national poison hotline for advice after eating the wrong mushroom, most of them only get a dose of tummy ache and deadly mushrooms have only claimed about 15 lives in half a century in Sweden.
As a child, mushroom enthusiast Hakan Bodo learnt from his parents which mushrooms were safe to eat.
"They marked the ones that were poisonous with a crucifix," said Bodo, who two years ago swapped his boat on the Baltic for a cabin deep in the woods to indulge his passion for mushrooms.
For the uninitiated, or those wishing to expand their repertoire to include exotic woodland varieties, advice is on hand from about 200 experts recognised by the National Mushroom Consultants' Association.
There are also mushroom-picking excursions, seminars and cookery courses arranged by clubs like Stockholm Friends of the Mushroom, which was founded in 1879, and the Swedish Society for Mycology, which is the study of fungi.
Shops stock book and CD guides to which mushrooms are safe to eat, plus special knives, brushes and baskets for picking the mushrooms. An Internet database logs the best areas, though many families keep their forest finds a jealously guarded secret.
"There's a kind of mystery around all this... We know people in the area but no one tells each other where the best spots are. I was brought up that way," said Bodo.
The prime minister threw caution to the wind when he told a crowd this summer that he and his wife had stumbled across a find of the yellow mushroom chanterelle -- known in Sweden as "the forest's gold" -- at their summer house.
"There are karljohans too," he said, unwisely revealing the location of a prized variety called "penny buns" in English.
Sweden is a paradise for mushroom fans. Over half the country is covered by forests, laws of access give people the right to tramp across farmland and private timber plantations, and there are tracts of forest near all the major cities.
Persson is not the only politician to spend his spare time sifting through moss and bracken for mushrooms. The head of the opposition Centre Party, Maud Olofsson, says it is her favourite pastime and publishes mushroom recipes on the party website.
There is a also a lucrative market in fancier varieties, like karljohans, in restaurants in Stockholm and further away in France and Italy, where they are an expensive delicacy.
But for most Swedes, picking mushrooms is essentially a way of enjoying the forest.
Bodo, a retired human resources chief, and his wife Lilian, a bank manager, spend four or five hours a morning every other day during the summer cycling deep into the forest near their cabin south of Stockholm to hunt for mushrooms.
Bodo said his wife found that the best way to get rid of work-related stress was "to go out into the forest and listen to the silence, feel all the smells".
Picking mushrooms is not just good for the mind. Swedes fry their haul in butter with salt and pepper or freeze them to eat in stews over the long winter months.
Some Swedes even recruit their pets to help hunt mushrooms. Inger Andersson in Eskilstuna, west of Stockholm, said her cat Ville meows when he smells chanterelles and sniffed out 20 litres of them in the forest last year.