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Fun(gus) and games: Latvia's mushroom picking championship Tue Aug 30,10:52 AM ET
ZVIRGZDE, Latvia (AFP) - It is the last weekend in August, and a hundred or so fungi cognoscenti, each armed with a local map and a basket, have gathered in the woods outside the south-central Latvian village of Zvirgzde to do battle.
They had come from every corner of the country to square off in the Baltic state's first-ever mushroom picking championship -- whoever emerged from the forest at day's end on Sunday with the most heavily laden basket will be declared the victor.
Less surprising than the event is the fact that no one thought of doing it sooner.
"Latvians are children of nature in their souls, so I thought we must promote and develop the Latvian national tradition of picking mushrooms," said Dagnis Dubrovskis, instigator of the championship and dean of the Forest Department of Latvian Agriculture University.
And so the constestants fanned out into the Latvian woods to search for king boletes, slippery Jacks, chanterelles and any of the other 4,000 -- that's a four with three zeros -- varieties native to Latvia.
"I have been picking mushrooms for as long as I can remember. When my basket fills with mushrooms, I can say I have spent a beautiful day," Dubrovskis said.
His five-year-old daughter Andra also professed her love for shade-loving fungi, and proudly showed off her expertise.
"I know almost as many species of mushrooms as my father does," she smiled, displaying by way of proof a cluster of freshly-picked slippery Jacks.
Forests cover 45 percent of Latvia's 64,589 square kilometers, and about half of those woods -- owned by the state -- are open hunting grounds for mushrooms and berries. Most private forests are fair game too.
"Theoretically about 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of mushrooms grow in a hectare of forest. Imagine, then, how many tons there are!", Dubrovskis said, visibly excited by such an astronomical order of mushroom magnitude.
"Mushroom picking is fun. It's also important to pick them for food and prepare for a long winter," said 73-year-old Romualds Koluzs, his basket brimming.
Koluzs -- a self-proclaimed "professional lover of mushrooms" -- has 40 books on the subject and can identify at least 150 edible species.
"We freeze, salt or pickle them, but my favourite delicacy is roasted mushrooms after a day outdoors. If I have mushrooms, I don't even need meat in summer," he said.
Koluzs' mushrooms were gorgeous, but the winners were three men in a team called -- for reasons they would not divulge -- "Worms in Soup." Their 2.615 kilograms (5.81 pounds) capped the competition.
"Mushroom picking is the best way of relaxing," said the team's Raimonds Zilite, the 31-year-old manager of a Riga company.
"Now we will cook them and serve them to friends," he said.
For the sake of his guests, Zilite hopefully knows the difference between a False morel and an edible one, because every year several people die in Latvia after eating poisonous mushrooms.
Just last week two people were taken to hospital in serious condition after a mushroom dinner.
"Unfortunately we don't have such a practice where people can take mushrooms to a pharmacy to check whether they are really good," as is done elsewhere in Europe, explained Maris Balodis, a food and veterinary official.
"But at least we are sure that in public markets only good mushrooms are sold, because they all are tested in a laboratory," he said.
A kilo of fresh chanterelles costs about 1.5 lats (2.13 euros, 2.63 dollars) in a central market in Riga -- many times cheaper than in most west European cities.
"If you like to spend time in the forest, you can get them for free here," said Guna Baltina, an environmental specialist of Latvia's state forest company.
"And our forests are so beautiful and rich. Everybody is welcome to enjoy the nature. And mushroom picking is one of the best ways to do it," she said.
-------------------- We got Nothing! we're no longer selling jars.
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