Travel

Mushrooms gone wild — Catalonia, Spain-style

Berga, Spain

The Spanish sky was robin's-egg blue.

My knuckles were frightened-guy white.

As I clutched the door of our four-wheel drive, my wife, Colleen, pretzeled herself into a modified fetal position. Her face ashen, she said, "I never knew mushroom hunting was a contact sport."

It's not supposed to be.

But as guide Gregori Ruiz swerved to avoid a deep rut in a mountain road, I wasn't so sure. To our left was a dense red pine forest. To our right, a 1,000-foot drop-off. Ahead, basketball-sized boulders.

"Hang on," Gregori said as he continued to scan the roadside for the prized Ou de Reig mushroom. "It's going to get a little rough from here out."

To calm us, he turned on some music. The love theme from the movie "Titanic" swelled from the speakers.

We were high above the Catalan town of Berga in the foothills of the Pyrenees, about 65 miles north of Barcelona. The road we were on, known as the Path of the Good Men, is part of a 120-mile trail carved out of the mountains eight centuries ago by the Cathars as they escaped persecution in southern France. Hikers can travel all or part of the path from Montségur, France, to Berga.

But we were here because of mushrooms, mushrooms that glistened in the sunlight along the trail. We wanted to participate in the twin autumn rituals of this region: mushroom picking and mushroom eating.

Berga and environs are the mushroom mother lode: thousands of square miles of mountain slopes with just the right climate for the fungus, all accessible by a network of hiking trails and dirt roads. Hunters generally limit themselves to about 30 varieties, although there are said to be more than 5,000 types here.

For us, this was the final leg of a three-week trip last October to southern France and northern Spain. For the first two weeks, we had pampered ourselves with four-star service on a river yacht and on the Costa Brava. Now, we yearned for something off the beaten path that also accommodated our love of food, wine and a bit of adventure. Mushroom hunting in the Pyrenees seemed a good fit.

Food and wine, we would learn, are centerpieces of Catalan culture. Families spend hours at the dinner table, and discussions about Catalonian political and cultural autonomy are loud and passionate. As for fast food, we never encountered one outlet.

THE PURSUIT BEGINS

Our base of operations was Moli del Caso, a five-room bed-and-breakfast a few minutes from Berga that is built on the site of a 500-year-old mill. Our hostess, Conxita Casseras, had opened the inn only a few weeks prior, so we would be some of her first customers.

Rooms were fanciful if spare. Spoons and forks served as curtain swag holders, and metal colanders functioned as lampshades. Water was heated by the sun.

Soon after our arrival, Conxita, who trained with acclaimed chef Alain Ducasse, busied herself preparing a traditional Catalan starter: mashed potatoes fried with blood sausage and mushrooms and served in a delicate timbale, topped with a sprig of parsley. It was a fine start to our evening meal.

We watched as she layered vegetables and white pike over a bed of zucchini, added some extra-virgin oil and fresh-from-the-garden fennel, and wrapped the delicacy in parchment. Thirty minutes later, the fish was melting in our mouths, one of the best meals on our trip. Total cost was $25 each, including wine.

In the morning, we were off to Berga to meet Gregori, a veteran mushroom hunter, and guide Imma Casas, who proved to be a godsend. She arranged our activities with military precision. Her laugh was infectious, and her love of all things Catalan was obvious.

We piled into Gregori's four-wheeler. After a stop at his garden for some home-grown tomatoes for lunch, we were off in search of the wily mushroom.

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.

Now it was our turn. Imma was the first to spot a small patch of burnished orange-colored, silver dollar-sized rovellos. "These are my favorite," Imma said with a smile. "They are tender and sweet." Gregori came upon a group of fist-size mushrooms with light brown caps. We call these porcinis, but in Catalonia they're known as ceps.

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.

Colleen sampled the pumpkin soup (a winner) and I tried the grilled turbot, served over a bed of peach, pineapple and mango salsa (ditto). We split a crème Catalan (similar to a crème brûlée) for dessert.

After lunch, we retired to the solitude of Moli del Caso. There, I napped by the gushing stream. Dinner that night was a simple affair: grilled pork burgers and beer. We had reached mushroom overload.

TIME TO CELEBRATE

The morning of the 50th annual Mushroom Festival dawned crisp and cool. We drove to a meadow high above Berga, where the festivities were to play out. We were some of the first guests, but the crowd grew quickly. (Organizers count on around 3,000 townsfolk each year.) The pinyon-like smell of wood wafted over the crowd. Volunteer cooks tended huge vats of oil as they fried 1,500 pounds of local sausages and thick bacon. Locals were lined up three deep to get their share of the early morning feast.

At 11 a.m., about 50 youngsters, ages 7 and younger, lined up at a special gate, mushroom baskets in hand. Gregori gave them their picking instructions. With a wave of his hand, he sent them scampering up the mountain in search of fungal gold (which had been seeded before the kids got there) in a scene reminiscent of an American Easter egg hunt.

Half an hour later, the children began a grand march around the show ring, much to the delight of the townspeople, who pressed five deep to see the fruits of the hunt.

Now, it was time for the big hunters to weigh in. They were required to carry their mushroom baskets from the staging area to the weigh-in station without letting them touch the ground.

Soncel Molins was the first to heft his basket and trudge the 100 feet to the platform. A huge cry went up when his total was announced: 132 pounds. Then perpetual winner Alfred Prados entered the ring. His basket looked equally heavy but weighed in at only 103 pounds. The competitors exchanged hugs and quenched their thirst with more Estrella Damm.

Before you could say mushroom, the crowd had dispersed. The day's festivities were over, but there was more to come.

That night, we made our way to the town square, where, it seemed, all of Berga had turned out.

Several loud booms marked the start of the fireworks. Shell after shell burst directly overhead. Then it was time for the denouement: the burning of the symbolic mushroom tower.

Gregori and his cohorts lighted a string of firecrackers that encircled the 30-foot-tall tower. Slowly, the paper and wood effigy started to burn. More fireworks. And then the whole assemblage burst into flames. The crowd cheered. Local firefighters sprayed the streets and nearby buildings to protect them.

Thirty minutes later, the structure began to flicker as it neared collapse. Just then, a local band struck up a traditional tune and a score of dancers joined hands and treated the crowd to a demonstration of the sardane, a traditional line dance.

It was a fitting end to our celebration as well, a journey that had covered more than 100 miles around the Pyrenees in search of the elusive mushroom, had included 21 kinds of mushroom dishes and had helped forge what we know will be lasting friendships.

We savor them still.


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