The Kiruna underground iron mines should be appreciated and (un)known as a place of many tours and detours. They hide many treasures. Though in fact, to be honest, they do not. They hide iron ore, a bit of copper and probably a lot of unworthy stones of assorted kinds. That is exactly what they hide. Period. Actually, to be fully exhaustive, they do hide a little bit of something noteworthy. Shiitake mushrooms. Of all things…

I guess that will require a bit of explanation.

Hunting Shiitake Mushrooms

Inside the Iron Mine of Kiruna to hunt Shiitake mushrooms

First of all, what the hell was I doing in Kiruna? It is very far north. Well, basically that is why (the hell, yes) I was up there, because it is way up there. With an almost-full moon, close to the shortest day of the year, that being late December, and minus twenty-five degrees—that is in the grade of Celsius, the proper one, do not get me started on Fahrenheit’s stupid one—you can make for an enjoyable little adventure. Mine included some good food, some trips to the bar, some hikes resulting in frozen beard and some other excursions. One excursion took me to the Norwegian harbor town of Narvik by train, wonderful landscape and nice company. Another one took me down the famous iron mines. The normal way to do so is by following an organized tour. Touristy stuff. However, through some mingling, I got a private tour down there, given by a retired miner, retired mining consultant, former first-generation-computer-hacker, almost retired underground shiitake mushroom farmer. Yes. Underground shiitake mushroom farmer. He was a man in his late sixties probably, one that can easily be imagined finishing his sentences by “jolly good, old chap!” He went by the name of Sven.

Second of all, let me enlighten the (few, no doubt) people who are not familiar with the shiitake mushrooms. They are considered, and rightly so, a delicacy and can be found in various dietetic shops, and are an ingredient of traditional medicine, especially in Asia. In Japan one could get them on the trunks of some specific sort of oak trees, apparently the favourite host for the mushrooms, allegedly under guard from legions of armed-to-the-teeth samurai, given that it constituted food very much appreciated by the high classes of society. But one cannot rely on samurai and special oak trees nowadays and recently some science has been put into trying to make its culture more proficient.

One has to play music to the mushrooms, they like that. Click To Tweet

The current process does not involve samurai, but some nifty techniques, engineering almost. The mycelium of the shiitake is inserted into a log of compressed wood chips of some specific variety of alder tree (mycelium is the shiitake to be exact, what we eat is the fruit of the mushroom—I’ve always wondered by the way why someone at some point started to eat mushrooms, I can imagine sentences such as: “you should try these things, when they do not kill you they are pretty tasty…” which is truly mysterious if not totally insane, if you ask me). The miming done by Sven seemed to imply that said-injection is to be done by means of a syringe. These logs are sterilized before the injection in order to reduce the growth of other competing mushrooms and also reduce the fighting for supremacy over the pieces of compressed chips, and of course remove undesirable diseases. The logs are then packaged in plastic and stored.

I was introduced to these logs somewhere around 540m under ground, somewhere hidden inside the Kiruna iron mines, one of the biggest underground mines in the world. I could give you a full report on how and why and what of the production of iron (later to be transported as beads by train to the very same harbor of Narvik where I was just a day before) as the man explained it all, together with the history of the place, but this is not the time.

Hunting Shiitake Mushrooms

Hunting Shiitake Mushrooms

Sven showing off his Shiitake mushrooms

Our mushroom man, being a former hacker and responsible for computer security (i.e. try to get the computers not to be destroyed by moisture and that sort of things, no Internet security here) chose a particular room, nay, bunker almost, to start his farm. He got that idea after visiting some town in northern Japan, on a mission dealing with sharing information and skills on how to run a iron mine, the Japanese apparently were eager to know about the Swedish way of doing things. Interestingly, in that same trip to Japan, there was one guy in the Swedish delegation who later would become known for making ice hotels and ice bars, popular touristy things. Shiitake farm, ice hotel, this was one innovative inspiring trip indeed!

The mushrooms’…er…room is of reasonable size, controlled in temperature and in moisture and with radio playing constantly. One has to play music to the mushrooms, they like that. When Sven receives an order, he transfers the logs from the storage room to the, er, growing room. Then he plays them, like a flute, or a tambourine. Maybe he is a fan of Bob Dylan. Or of Eddy Van Halen’s famous tapping guitar technique. By inducing vibration inside the log one starts the process of growing. It is then rather important not to go around kicking the shelves if one does not want to have mushrooms sprouting all over the place. It is an art. Within one week after the playing, or tapping, the mushroom’s fruits are ready to be harvested, cut one by one and then packed in paper bags. Sven did have two logs ready at the time of the visit. That gave maybe 300 grams of shiitake. Courtesy of the house!

Crumble the mushrooms if they are dried or crush them without care if they are fresh. Do whatever you want (preferably with your bare hands, I love that smell lingering on them afterward), Click To Tweet

The little piece of paper he gave as a souvenir comes with a Shiitake soup recipe (for six people), translated here from French (probably originally translated from Swedish. I do not speak Swedish, I can guess what’s going on when I have engorged enough akvavit and if the person speaking to me is from the fair sex (but is there one sex affair which is fair, honestly?) and true to the Scandinavian standards. I allow myself this little digression because our man insisted that one should make sure to have a lady “handy” when eating his mushrooms. That and also that said-lady should clear her scheduling around nine months from the date of the diner. If you catch my/his drift. Wink wink. He was full of anecdotal stories and examples of babies appearing here and there after the ingestion of said mushroom):

10g of dried or 100g of fresh shiitake mushrooms
1 or 2 stock cubes of meat stuff (or other flavour if you are a vegetarian)
1L of boiling water
2.5dL of crême fraîche
1 small onion, minced

Crumble the mushrooms if they are dried or crush them without care if they are fresh. Do whatever you want (preferably with your bare hands, I love that smell lingering on them afterward), but be sure they will be able to mix in the liquid dammit! Throw them with the cubes in boiling water. Add the minced onion and let the mixture boil nicely for twenty minutes (half an hour if the mushrooms were dried ones). Add the cream, and stir until the consistency is satisfying. Spice it up with a bit of salt and white pepper. Top it with a bit of parsley before serving.

I did not feel like having soup even if it was suitably cold and snowy outside so I decided to just fry the mushrooms in a pan, with butter and some noix de muscade (but just a little, this being powerful stuff). Then I added a bit of water and some liquid cream to make a sauce for some pasta. Plain and simple. The mushrooms had a hard time in the returning trip planes: Kiruna-Stockholm then Stockholm-Copenhagen, quite a long trip with wind, snow and such. They were not very pretty when I pulled them out of the paper bag. But as soon as they started to make funny noises in the pan, then the smell became quite wonderful. And tasty. They went well with a bottle of 2000 Haut-Medoc (it was time to drink that one, Medoc is not a vin de garde, at all) and a bit of grated Parmigiano. The invited lady has been requested to keep her schedule empty until to August next year. One never knows…