We headed out of town and up, up, ever up. At about 2,500 feet, we pulled off the paved road and parked. Longtime hunters Jaume Cepdevila and Josep Torres-Camarayes showed off their catch of the day: a 1 1/2 -pound llenega negra mushroom, valued for its succulence.
I, meanwhile, managed to step in several fresh cowpies, while Colleen succeeded in spotting several poisonous varieties of mushrooms. Imma said that even veteran hunters have to be careful about what they pick.
We left Colleen's finds behind and changed locations. Gregori pointed the four-wheel-drive up a well-maintained dirt road. Soon, we were alone in a wilderness that produced another postcard view with each turn: pink granite, now white limestone, and then towering, bare cliffs. Later, lush forests on each side. Gregori concentrated on the road but still managed to keep an eye on the forest.
Finally, we crossed a small stream and pulled off the road. We spread out our noontime repast in a meadow filled with wildflowers and the remnants of a herd of grazing cattle. Gregori showed us how to prepare a Catalan specialty: pa amb tomàquet (bread and tomato). With great ceremony, he rubbed overripe tomatoes over huge hunks of French bread, then drizzled on extra-virgin olive oil, topping it off with lean prosciutto, sharp Parmesan and ripe black olives. It was a meal fit for a king.
After lunch, we continued our trek up and down the Path of the Good Men. In two hours, we covered about 20 miles on roads so rough that a Sherman tank would have had trouble negotiating them.
Our trip back down was uneventful, and we decided to meet in the town square for a celebratory Estrella Damm, a local brew that went down easily.
Our take for the day -- about 10 pounds of assorted mushrooms -- was paltry compared with what veteran hunters brought home. But we were still aglow with the thrill of the hunt.
We dined that night at Berga's Sala restaurant, one of the region's more than two dozen eateries offering a special mushroom tasting menu during the season. Proprietor Ramon Sala met us at the door and seated us, about 9 p.m., just as the restaurant was filling up. (Catalans dine late; dinner generally begins between 9:30 and 10 p.m.)
Ramon's brother-in-law, Miguel Marquez, is the head chef, and a strong proponent of Catalan cuisine. Mushroom flavors varied from earthy to sublime. My favorite was a light mushroom soup served over an aspic of local meats. Colleen chose paper-thin ceps that had been lightly drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Imma chose a roasted Ou de Reig mushroom, accompanied by warm duck liver.
"The trick with a tasting menu such as ours is to keep the customer guessing. . . with different flavors and texture. . . even though each dish is based on the same main ingredient," Miguel told us later over coffee and brandy.
AT THE MARKET
We met Imma in her village the next morning and joined her and her biologist husband, Carlos, in her parents' airy kitchen for a traditional breakfast of coka bread (a light pastry topped with honey and sugar), sweet chocolate and local sausage. It was a great way to start the weekend.
The house was near the Guardiola de Berguedà market, where pickers, sellers and buyers unite in a constant stream of commerce that finds a variety of mushrooms for sale generally between $5 to $8 a pound, although llenega negras and chanterelles, which were in short supply, were going for as much as $25 per pound.
From there we headed to the Museu d'Art del Bolet (Museum of the Art of the Mushroom) in the village of Montmajor, a 30-minute drive through the valley from Berga.
After a 10-minute introductory video, we walked over a plexiglass bridge under which a life-size forest scene had been re-created in ceramic. Inside the museum are 20 display cases, each filled with ceramic dioramas featuring a variety of mushrooms.
Each mushroom has been faithfully reproduced by the loving hands of master ceramist Josefina Vilajosana, and each case carries a graphic showing which species are edible and which are toxic. Seeing the mushrooms in such an orderly setting brought some logic to the chaos of our in-field identification angst.
But it's hard to eat a ceramic mushroom. So to assuage our hunger (it had been four hours since the last fungus had passed our lips), Imma suggested Restaurant la Cabana, a frequent gathering spot for mushroom hunters.
We chose a simple starter of rovellos sautéed in garlic.