HARDCORE MUSHROOM HUNTSWOMAN: FORAGING SETAS IN THE SPANISH PYRENEES

I CONFESS. I woke up on the wrong side of the bed and had no interest in foraging for mushrooms. Even though I was fully aware that romping through the forest in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees to collect wild (and valuable) mushrooms could very well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it was Saturday. I wanted to ease out of bed when I felt like it, not at the beckoning of someone (a very enthusiastic, loves-life-in-the-mornings someone) else. And more than that, probably, is that I didn’t want to do yet another task that involved me learning something new. When you choose to immerse yourself in a new culture—language and all—every tiny little thing becomes a challenge. An effort. An opportunity for learning and growth, yes, but it’s work. And for a control-freak-know-it-all, all that “being told” and “being taught” business can get wearisome.

So getting up on Saturday morning to learn about mushrooms in a language I barely understand was not high on my list of desires. But, I’d made the date and said I’d be ready and I was going to keep my plans. And, frankly, I didn’t have much of a choice. Before I’d even made it out of the bedroom, Antonio burst through the door with a basket brimming with fist-sized, meaty ‘shrooms, or ‘’setas’’ in Spanish. Beaming, he was clearly pleased with his goods and buzzing with excitement to go back out for the hunt. I fake smiled through blurry eyes and, language barrier and all, made it clear that I’d need a little more time and a hearty dose of caffeine before I’d be capable of diplomacy.

As I chugged coffee and tied my ugly ‘’roughing it’’ shoes, Antonio revealed his prized discovery: “un Huevo del Rey”, which translates to the King’s Egg. With his knife, he gently peeled back a thin, foamy, white layer to bare a lovely orange bulb. This one was small—about half the size of an actual egg—but Antonio was thrilled and hopeful that there’d be more out there, snuggled into the pine needles and moss of the forest floor. They are highly regarded in the culinary world and their price tag is marked accordingly. I was light years away from his level of excitement at that point but it couldn’t be denied that shiny little mushroom cap was cute.

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A sweet little Huevo del Rey.

We loaded into his truck and wound through the tiny lanes of Secastilla, his side mirrors a gnat’s eyelash away from scraping the homes on either side of us. Two wicker baskets and a pair of pocket knives rattled in the backseat, and Antonio cast his eyes over to me with a cheeky grin and a wink. He was tickled pink; I was grimacing at the radio which was, as always, static-y. Eyes on the road, sunshine, there are old ladies in house dresses wobbling through these streets!

After our 47-second commute through the village, we bumped off of the pavement and into the dusty, rocky terrain of the vineyards and olive tree orchards that create a patchwork surrounding the pueblo. Plumes of terracotta-colored dirt billowed up in front of the truck, and through the haze we could see two old ladies—in house dresses, to be sure!—grasping each other’s hands in an effort to stay upright. Hands over eyes, they squinted at us.

“Aah, Tono!” they squawked, happy to see their sweet town hero. We inched up to the “mujeres” and gently came to a stop, as if any extra disturbance would cause them to blow over or, even worse, away. There was one on each side, their noses and curlers (yep, curlers) barely reaching the open windows. They grasped the doors and peered in. A passionate conversation ensued and I, I smiled dumbly and tried to look sweet. I was getting good at that.

Next thing I knew the ladies were popping open the back doors and climbing up, snuggling in next to each other in the middle of the bench so as to have the best vantage point for backseat driving. I didn’t understand what they were asking of Antonio, but there was an air of excitement and mischief about them, like two schoolgirls sneaking out past their parents. Plastic bags crinkled in their fists, balled up in an attempt at discretion.

They chirped, pointed and we were off, four of us like bobble-heads bouncing through the vines. About five minutes later, Antonio was instructed to pull over. We had reached their destination amongst some almond trees. Their eyes gleamed as they said their goodbyes and carefully descended the truck. As we pulled away from them, I asked Antonio what they were up to.

“No sé,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and grinning again.

“Why didn’t you ask?”

Antonio responded with a series of meaningful hems and haws and more shoulder shrugging and grinning.

“They didn’t say. And they had bags. They’re probably going to look for mushrooms and I didn’t want to pry.”

Interesting. I was beginning to see the competition and secrecy and excitement that came along with foraging for setas, and my enthusiasm bumped up. Just a smidge, but it was ascending. And that was a good thing because I needed all the good humor I could muster for the ride up the mountain. I’m prone to carsickness and the winding, bumpy climb to our first destination did nothing to improve my unjustified crankiness. My teeth clattered in my skull and the coffee sloshed around in my stomach and I longed for the support of a sports bra. “I could be wearing a cute sundress and having a mimosa right now if I were home,” I thought. My tolerance for these new challenges and adventures was at its lowest since my arrival two weeks earlier.

We pulled over and I placed my boobs back into my clothing and blinked hard to get un-dizzy. Antonio handed me a basket and a pocket knife and took off ahead of me, galloping like a billy goat down the mountain through dense clusters of rosemary and thyme and other brush that I couldn’t identify but whose thorns and spiky leaves I could most certainly feel. I juggled the basket and my camera, removed pine needles from my hair, ducked under trees, picked my way over rocks, stumbled over roots and pulled a few Matrix maneuvers to save myself from branches studded with pinecones and, I dunno, razor blades.

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Antonio scampers ahead.

The mumbling and sputtering under my breath escalated until finally I called ahead “Okay! Okaaay!! I am NOT having fun. My clothes are getting caught on everything and I can’t stop to look for mushrooms because I’m too busy trying to not fall over and where are the damn mushrooms anyway?!” I was speaking in English, but my message was clear. I was much closer to a full-blown pitch-a-fit than I’d care to admit.

We climbed back up to the car. Rather, Antonio stepped with the confidence of a person who grew up in those woods and I stomped like a clumsy child. Back in the truck, Antonio looked at me, completely unruffled by my bad behavior and still completely happy, and suggested another spot that was flatter. Fine, okay. I was still daydreaming of that sundress and mimosa, but it was time to check my attitude and I knew it. I searched my insides for every ounce of maturity and reason I could and took a few deep breaths.

We wound further up the mountain, stopping once to say hello to Antonio’s boss, who was sitting on the edge of his open van door eating a sandwich while his friend crunched through the woods, hands full of mushrooms. Did someone send out a memo? How do all of these people know that today is the day to go foraging for mushrooms? Why didn’t someone tell me that is was like this? I was tired of feeling totally out of the loop.

A few minutes up the road and we pulled over. About 50 meters in the distance a family swarmed around a Jeep, hurriedly loading a large crate of what were presumably mushrooms into the trunk and slamming the door closed. They nervously looked at us over their shoulders as they attempted to hide the evidence of their success. With their treasures stowed away, they turned to us and waved and smiled, as if to say “nothing to see here. Nothing at all. We just happen to have the entire family out for a sandwich on the side of the road.”

This is a good time to mention that Spanish folks seem to love bringing along a sandwich for just about any outdoor occasion. A couple weeks ago I joined a group of little ones and their parents for a short hike to gather stones for a craft project. We trekked downhill for about 12 minutes and then when I turned around to see how everyone behind me was doing, half of them were tucking into fat loafs stuffed with ham and cheese. I mean, had we really earned that snack? Granted, the bread was baked fresh that morning in the village bakery, the ham was probably carved off of a cured hock sitting on the kitchen table and the cheese was likely made in a nearby village. With ingredients that fresh and authentic to the area, who’s really worrying about whether that little nibble had been earned or not? There is not a mouthful of food here that hasn’t been thought about, worried over and brought to life with love and attention to detail.

Anyway, upon seeing the family nervously concealing their setas, Antonio rolled his eyes and said “tranquilo, tranquilooo” under his breath. It was a condescending utterance for them to relax, but it wouldn’t be long before we swung into full-fledged competition mode ourselves.

So we set out. Beams of sunshine filtered through the pines and the forest floor was damp and cool, matted with pine needles and much easier to traverse than before. Although scattered pieces of unearthed mushroom stems indicated we were following behind other hunters, we weaved further into the woods and began having success. “Mira! Amor, mira!!” Antonio’s practiced eye quickly spotted small clusters of Rovellones (roh-bay-yoh-nays) nestled in nooks and crannies provided by tree roots, layers of soil and pine needles and tufts of foliage. How demure they were, and enticing in their modesty.

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Rovellones hiding in the brush.

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Rovellones, like all mushrooms, take on different titles depending on where you are in the world. In English-speaking countries, you’ll find this tasty toadstool under the name of Saffron Milk Cap or Red Pine Mushroom. Its Latin name is Lactarius deliciosus because Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, gave it a sniff a few hundred years ago and was like “oh yeah, that’s gonna be scrumptious with some butter and garlic. You, little fungus, will henceforth be known as DELICIOUS!” It is native to the southern Pyrenees and grows under pine trees, which is exactly where we were foraging. Its cap is salmon-pink bordering on orange with darker concentric rings and sometimes greenish markings.

The hunt was on and the deeper we went into the trees, the more success we had. Our baskets grew heavier and heavier and our finds more lucrative: more ‘shrooms in one spot, bigger and more beautiful. “Wherever there is one, there will be a second,” Antonio instructed. I sunk my knees into the spongy earth and carefully uncovered the seta, sliding my little knife under the cap and through the smooth stem. Some were slippery and producing carrot-orange milk, others were dry and foamy like a cigarette filter. I found myself whispering “thank you” as I sliced and collected, crouching down close to the forest floor in a tiny, accidental gesture of gratitude to the mushroom and the forest. It was official: I was enjoying myself.

Antonio returned to his truck to empty his overflowing basket and I sure am glad he did because it was right after his return that our big gold strike began. It started with a sighting by Antonio. From about 20 meters of tree-lined forest away, he spotted a splash of orange. He squinted, walked closer and “Yes! Un Huevo del Rey!” Where there is one, there is a second. And in this case, there were a lot more. And they were big. And then I spotted some. And then he spotted some more. And with the frenzied fervor of two children at an Easter egg hunt we scampered around filling our baskets with the bright orange setas. Antonio shook his hands at the sky, smiling so hard his eyes disappeared. “Never, never, NEVER have I found so many of these! And so big! You are my good luck charm!!!” He pointed at the two baskets and said that we had about €400 worth of mushrooms there, which is when I started threatening to sell on E-Bay.

A hearty Huevo del Rey.
A hearty Huevo del Rey.

That’s also when Antonio first encouraged me to hide any debris that might indicate to hunters later in the day that we’d been lucky in that spot. I was all over it, totally getting into my role as Hardcore Mushroom Huntswoman. I buried hunks of stem in the dirt, re-covered unworthy mushrooms with pine needles and moved rocks on top of my evidence.

Then someone whistled nearby, a tentative “yoohoo” of sorts to see if we were close. Then some rustling and another short hoot. Oh no. Someone’s on to us. Antonio gave me an exaggerated finger-over-mouth to say “not a word.” We tried to escape but Jeep-sandwich man was determined to snag a peek at our loot. The men had a short visit (and again, passionate, as per all Spanish conversations) with lots of pointing and gesturing and shoulder-shrugging. As we made our way back up toward the car, I whispered to Antonio “did you tell that man the truth?” The cheeky grin returned and he said “nope. I told him we found a lot right here but that there weren’t any lower down.” An area bountiful with mushrooms is like a secret fishing spot: you want to protect it for yourself, so mum’s the word.

When we reached the road and walked back toward the car, I knew we were supposed to be discreet. But I couldn’t help it! I was dying to show off our findings! When another forager passed I feigned some degree of secrecy, but I was really thinking “LOOK AT THESE BIG, SHINY, BEAUTIFUL, ORANGE BULBS GLEAMING FROM MY BASKET!!! HAHAHHH WE WIN!! I WIN AT GETTING MUSHROOOOOOMS!!!”

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As we returned to the village in time for the daily family lunch, I tried to get clear who I was allowed to talk to about the mushrooms and to what extent and whether or not this was to be a to-the-grave secret or if there was some statute of limitation on time. I never got quite clear on the answers to those questions and so erred on the side of bragging. Antonio, however, continued to be discreet as far as I could tell. For the next 48 hours we couldn’t take a stroll down the lane without conversation immediately turning to mushrooms with anybody we bumped into. Where did you go? Answer with lies. Did you find many? Answer with lies. How do you cook them? Tell the truth, avidly and with confidence that your way of preparing is the best way.

After lunch and a siesta, we poured cervezas con limon (regular old beer mixed with effervescent lemonade) and hunkered down to process the mushrooms. Although the general consensus among credible sources nowadays is that rinsing your ‘shrooms does not affect their flavor, the old-school, purist approach here means hand-wiping each and every seta. We trimmed crinkled edges, cut out ugly spots, flicked away little critters, removed the stems of the Rovellones and sliced them thinly. Despite my E-Bay threats, we would keep all of our findings for in-house cooking and sharing with friends.

The Huevo del Reys were kept intact, and the prettiest one was reserved for our dinner. Antonio prepared a plate that almost looked like sushi; bright orange and butter-yellow slivers—so thin you could almost see through them—drizzled with golden swirls of olive oil and luscious drops of balsamic vinegar of Modena, then sprinkled with crunchy flakes of sea salt. As we ate, he explained that the mushroom’s mild flavor and its velvety-smooth texture make it one of the few that are enjoyable to eat raw, making it a rare delicacy.

The rest of the setas—including Huevos del Rey to be eaten later—were cooked with house-made olive oil and homegrown garlic until they were mostly soft with a hint of firmness. The Huevos were stored in airtight containers and frozen as they were, sliced and cooked. We pureed the Rovellones, however, into a paté-ish consistency, and then spooned the mixture into ice cube trays. When the puree had frozen into cubes, we transferred the squares to Ziploc bags. Now when the mood strikes, we can grab a couple to mix into pastas, soups, sauces; the possibilities are endless.

Mushrooms only need about three or four days to spring from the ground and grow to maturity, and foraging is fruitful for most all of fall. So I will soon be strapping on my ugly “roughing it” shoes and ducking back into the dank shade of the forest. This time, though, I will be teeming with as much competitive spirit as a soccer mom and will be prepared to keep my lips sealed. And, I promise, I will get out of the right side of the bed.

 

 

 

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