EVERY year, after the first rains of autumn, mushrooms sprout up on restaurant menus throughout the Campo de Gibraltar. Nutty brown boletus, trumpet-shaped chanterelles and many others.
So delicious drizzled with garlic butter, stirred into venison stews; or – in the inventive kitchen of Al-Andalus in my village of Los Barrios – whipped up with sugar and eggs into sweet a mushroom flan!
Every year, 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.
So last Saturday morning, while you were still 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 had for climbing Everest: because it’s there, on our doorstep.
Our own Everest is no less challenging. The field-to-table foraging trend is very ‘now’ but you could easily end up as yesterday’s news. Only this autumn, a woman from Gerona dropped dead after eating the wrong mushroom: 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 Jesus,” said the owner of Al-Andalus, meaning his son (pronounced Heysoos). He’s savvy about setas but his biblical name was a comforting extra insurance!
A guide with expert local knowledge is essential if you don’t want to risk catching a stray bullet, as there are private hunting estates everywhere. You’ll also need a 4×4, a stout pair of boots and a stick. Forget the romance, the trug and the pixie outfit.
Being the end of November, we were only expecting a few end-of-season cast-offs. Wrong! 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 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 swear-word 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 souls in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, or thrust out phallic-shaped tips like flashers in raincoats.
There’s a wise saying in Spain: ‘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 white spots and red tips…
Maybe we were too selective. Our morning’s haul yielded only five-and-a-half specimens (one half-chewed by some woodland creature). But, we put our faith in Jesus 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!