Every year, after the first rains of autumn, wild mushrooms sprout on restaurant menus throughout the Campo de Gibraltar.
Nutty brown boletus, trumpet-shaped chanterelles, crunchy saffron milk caps and a cornucopia of other varieties, drizzled with garlic butter or stirred into venison stews …
Every year, after a plate of them, we talk of returning to our Neanderthal roots to hunt and gather our own. Or maybe it’s the sherry! But this year, we decided to walk our talk.
Last Saturday morning, while you were tucked up warm in bed, we were rattling through the mist-drenched foothills of Los Alcornocales, Europe’s largest cork forest, on a mission to uncover the mysteries of mycology!
Why? For no other reason than the fated George Mallory gave for climbing Everest: because it’s there, on our doorstep.
Our own Everest is no less challenging. The field-to-table foraging trend is so ‘now’ but you could easily end up as yesterday’s news.
Only this autumn, a woman from Gerona dropped dead from eating the wrong kind of wild mushrooms: amanita phalloides, the dreaded death cap. If it doesn’t kill you, it could condemn you to a life on dialysis.
“You’ll be alright if you go with Jesús,” said the owner of Al-Andalus, meaning his son (pronounced Heysoos). He’s savvy about setas but his biblical name was comforting extra insurance!
A guide with the local knowledge of a native Indian tracker is essential if you don’t want to risk taking a stray bullet. There are private hunting estates everywhere in the mountains.
You’ll also need a 4×4, a stout pair of boots and a stick. Forget the romance, the trug and the pixie outfit!
It hadn’t rained in two weeks and it was mid-November, so we were only expecting a few end-of-season cast-offs. But if you climb above the cloud line, there’s enough moisture in the air to keep fungi flourishing until the end of May!
First, catch your wild mushroom. They’re shy! They peep from behind trees and lurk under fallen leaves on the forest floor. I trod on the best specimens.
“There’s a magnificent boletus just by your left foot, Belinda.” Splat. Boletus! It’s a good swearword if you’re with the kids!
There are subtle differences between the gastronomic species and the kind that give you everything from gastroenteritis to organ failure.
There are 750 varieties of Russula, a game of Russula Roulette!
Some smell like rotting flesh, some look like storybook toadstools, others emerge from egg-shaped corms like the damned in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, or thrust out phallic-shaped tips like flashers in raincoats.
There’s a wise saying in Spain that ‘Wild mushrooms are like women – for every good one you find six bad ones’. ‘Like men’ would be a better rule of thumb; you’d know instinctively not to touch the ones with red tips and white spots!
Maybe we were too selective. Our morning’s haul yielded five-and-a-half specimens (one half-chewed by some woodland creature). But we put our faith in Jesús and ate the lot, lightly sautéed in butter.
Clearly, we lived to tell the tale and it’s one to tick off ‘The Beckett List’ but I’ll let you into a secret.
The ones at Al-Andalus taste far better!
Click the folling links for more information
A good walk where you learn about wild mushrooms – is very ‘in’ during autumn and the village of Jimena de la Frontera organises its own annual Mushroom Festival with lectures by chefs and mushroom experts, and guided trips through Los Alcornocales Park. Click the links to find out how you can organise your own tour.
Get up close and personal with the wild mushrooms of Los Alcornocales with this pictorial video
This is a good pictorial guide to wild mushrooms of Spain (in Spanish) and here’s a summary of varieties in English
The scenic train called Mr Henderson’s Railway skirts Los Alcornocales Park. If you haven’t already received your free Trip Planner to this fascinating British Victorian Railway, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page to Sign up for the Sizzle!