Mushroom-hunting in the Spanish Pyrenees
Basket in hand, I begin my hunt. This is a well-trodden path but new treasures are growing every day.
At the base of trees, under bushes and poking out of the grass are the mushrooms – our targets for today.
With me is Michelin-rated chef Francesc Rovira. Just a fifteen minute drive from his Fonda Xesc restaurant in the Spanish town of Gombren, this is his grocery.
Some of the tastiest mushrooms available are here – fresh and free. You just need to know where to look, as I discover.
“I like to go to forest”, Francesc tells me.
“I spend a lot of time in the kitchen so going to the forest is going back to nature and taking care of nature.”
But it also makes for a better meal, he believes.
“When you have to pick the mushrooms yourself, when you cook it you cook it with a little more love to the mushroom than if you buy it. I prefer to cook with something I got myself than something I bought.”
There is a talent to mushroom-hunting, though. Sometimes they can be hard to spot.
I almost walk right over a few while Francesc seems to be constantly calling me over to a new clump that he has discovered.
I wander aimlessly at times, scanning the ground and being fooled by shadows and strange-coloured leaves. But it’s as if the chef has a divining rod and seems to walk straight towards them.
His hands held behind his back, his tall towering frame glides between the trees and his eyes scan like a raven’s.
There’s a long tradition of gathering mushrooms here in this part of Catalonia. It’s one of the tastiest foods found naturally in the Pyrenees mountains and the locals have made the most of that for generations.
“In the old times it was a very important economic contribution to the family”, Francesc explains.
“All the people living here they used to pick up mushrooms, come here to the town, sell to the markets in Barcelona, and that was very important economically for them.”
But times have evolved. Mushrooms have grown from being a small and local business to a hobby for people all over the region.
As we slowly make our way up the hill from the road, I realise there are very few mushrooms on the lower slopes. They’ve already been plundered by enthusiasts who got here much earlier in the day than us.
“Before there were four locals just picking mushrooms but this has changed”, he says.
“The forest is much more accessible to people now, especially people from Barcelona.”
“There are better pathways, more access to the roads and also people who used to live in the forest have gone away so they don’t live here anymore.”
“And then all the popularity came from advertising that we have mushrooms here – and the fever of mushrooms happened in Catalonia.”
An explosion of media about the mushrooms created a fad. TV shows, articles and books all trumpeted the wonders of the mushrooms of the Pyrenees and the visitors flocked here.
But it’s not something that anybody can do unless they’ve undertaken a bit of research.
“No good”, Francesc says, wiping away the smile that had spread across my face.
The mushroom I’ve found looks as tasty as any of the others he has put in the basket but apparently it’s not edible. Just like the one I had found a minute earlier… and most of the ones before that.
With his trained eye, he can tell instantly that I am picking badly.
Still, between us we have found a decent amount and, interestingly, a decent variety of mushrooms. The highlight is the ‘rat foot’ one which is quite rare and looks like a piece of yellow coral.
It’s the best kind you can find on this mountain, apparently. Even if it has taken us almost an hour.
The Fonda Xesc restaurant, Gombren
Later that afternoon, back at Francesc’s restaurant, Fonda Xesc, he’s demonstrating the best way to cook the mushrooms. Sadly these are not the ones we picked… there weren’t nearly enough for a business of this size.
“The ideal thing would be to just cook the mushrooms I pick but that’s not possible because I have many tables and I have to buy things in the market”, he says.
“When it’s a good season about three or four locals go and pick mushrooms for me and that makes a difference.”
Francesc explains the intricacies of using mushrooms in dishes. With so many varieties to choose from, he likes to play with the contrast of tastes and textures.
For example, fat and juicy mushrooms go well with dry fish so he tries to pair them together.
If he’s using more than one type in a dish he also tries to make sure the tastes complement each other but still offer a point of difference.
As you would expect from a chef with Michelin recognition, a lot of thought goes into each dish. Francesc tries to draw out the tastes without masking them with other unnecessary flavours.
“What we do here is very simple cuisine, very light and very clean. That means we use a lot of product from around here and it’s very low fat.”
“These are the things other cultures can learn – to do things simple and clean.”
Tasting is an experience in itself. Francesc has put together a menu of small tasting plates and coupled the mushrooms with a range of meats including fish, beef and fish.
Each on its own is delicious and together they are an impressive demonstration of what can be done.
Even if these aren’t the ones we picked together ourselves, I like to think they come from the same place – a place high in the Pyrenees where a local love of nature and a simple respect for the mushrooms comes through in the dishes.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Costa Brava Pirineu de Girona tourism board but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.
32 thoughts on “We are the champignons”
Ooooh, I’m jealous. Mushrooms are one of my favourite things and those ones looks gorgeous. I’ll definitely be trying this out next time I’m back in Spain! Wonderful photos, by the way.
Just make sure you know which ones you’re picking – you don’t want to eat the deadly mushrooms!!
Brave man, once again. I stay clear of picking my own mushrooms although I have the habit of wandering through nature and nibble away on berries, plants and nuts. Mushrooms are a no-go because I’m too scared I’ll grab a poisonous one. I trust Francesc to know his shizzle, though -and that meal he created looks so tasty it would be okay if it was my last one;). Also, I love your shot of him ‘hunting’ down the little shroomies!
Oh, we’re complete opposites then. I get scared of picking and eating berries. They all look so tasty but I’m convinced they are hiding a deadly side and I’ll keel over if I pick some little red, black or blue ball of juicy fruit!
What an amazing experience that must have been. I would love to go foraging, but I certainly would need an expert to show me the ropes. I learned my lesson after an idiotic and painful berry-picking-in-Glacier experience.
The chef had two books that he referred to for some of the tricky looking ones. There’s a real science to picking mushrooms that I had never realised before. I thought they were all pretty much the same except for the deadly ones. Not so, it seems!
I would eat those dishes – looks yummy but the rats face mushroom is a bit weird!
I know – the rat one doesn’t even look like a mushroom! But it was very tasty 🙂
Mushroom hunting makes a fall, and it’s impossible not to fall for those beautiful dishes. Would love to know the recipe.
The recipes looked very complicated! Even though he says he uses simple ingredients, I think he does very tricky things with them…
This is without doubt the best blog title ever. Nice work on bringing a morning smile to my face, pre-coffee even. Also, I like how “between you” you managed to pick a good number of edible. I suspect you may have been bringing the average down… 😉
Ha ha – I was definitely letting the team down a little bit. But I made up for it with enthusiasm! (Not that enthusiasm alone ever won anybody a gold medal.)
So let me get this straight…you went mushroom hunting with a Michelin star chef, and then he cooked them for you? That, my friend, is what I call awesome…
Well, when you put it like that… yeah, it does sound pretty awesome 🙂
You must have a great network to be able to go mushroom picking with a Michelin chef! I got hungry just viewing your photos. Too bad we don’t have a great variety here in the Philippines. 🙁
I got so hungry looking back on the photos to write about it. And a big thanks to Costa Brava tourism who set this up!
That must’ve been amazing! Getting to go mushroom hunting with someone like that and then getting him to see cook them! Must’ve been tasty! Mushroom hunting is actually kinda fun, but it’s been ages since I’ve done it… London is not really good for it 😉
It was a really peaceful experience. I liked how you just wandered in the forest, looking at the ground and the trees. It was really quiet where we were and we had no time restrictions. Just walked around until we thought we had enough.
My mouth is watering at the thought of those fresh mushrooms but I’m glad you had an expert with you!
I would have been lost without an expert. Probably quite literally, seeing as I had no idea where we ended up after all the wandering through the forest!! 🙂
I would be afraid to go mushroom hunting by myself as I can’t tell good ones apart from poisonous ones, but I love them. Whenever I can, I add them to my recipes, they are so versatile. I also love eating some types raw in salads, delicious!
Raw ones in salads are delicious! My favourite mushrooms are when they’ve been fried with lots of butter and put with bacon and eggs for breakfast. but that’s probably not a very cultured thing to say and I’m sure the Michelin chef wouldn’t approve!! 🙂
How much had you drank when you came up with that title 🙂
Not enough. That’s the sad thing 🙂
What an incredible experience! And I love what the chef said about cooking things with “more love” when you found/grew/made the ingredients yourself.
I think that makes sense. Not only do you have a bit of a connection with the food you have found yourself, but you’re not going to waste any because you know the effort that’s involved in getting more!! 🙂
When I lived in Spain, mushroom hunting was one of my favorite things to do.
I can understand why. It was really fun just to do it – but then to have the delicious food as a bonus. Yum!!
great post about the hobby of the Catalonian people!
As far as hobbies go, I think they’ve got themselves a pretty good one!!
Mushrooming is something I have always wanted to do, particularly in the Spanish Pyrenees. I am saddened to read how it has evolved. The allure has lessened (a little), but I still want to do it. Perhaps, with an expert guide. You were lucky. I’m so envious. Especially of the meal.
Doing it with a local guide (whether they are a professional or not) would be a good way to do it. Not only would they know the best spots, they might be able to help identify the mushrooms as you go along.