Autumn’s Forest Treasure in Spain
Spain is the second most forested country in the European Union area-wise, and second in the world in terms of new forest growth. This country’s groves of oak, elm, beech, pine, and other trees nurture approximately 1,500 species of setas, or wild mushrooms. Every autumn, some 43 gastronomically significant varieties make their way into Spanish commerce, exports, tourism and food services, creating an annual mushroom frenzy that is as significant as it is fleeting. Nowhere is this more true than in the región of Castile-León, which annually accounts for some 65 million euros in wild mushroom sales, while generating nearly five million euros a year in edible fungus-centered tourism
Picture an autumn Saturday or Sunday in Castile-León when you stop at a bar or restaurant after a brisk walk in the crisp air, under the Velázquez-blue sky. You sip at a glass of mineral Bierzo or an exuberant Ribera del Duero wine while you think about lunch. It’s clearly a good day for some dish needing a spoon, such as a stew or a bowl of savory legumes enriched with the potent spices of artisanal chorizo. Or perhaps you’re dreaming of a lamb quarter that has been slowly roasted in a traditional clay oven, or a savory serving of wild game.
And then you catch sight of them: baskets of wild mushrooms lined up behind the bar, just waiting to be transformed into steaming dishes bearing flavors that are as earthy and meaty as they are aromatic and delicate. They’re impossible to resist, and in what seems like only minutes, the waiter is back with a piping hot dish in his hand – niscalos with scrambled eggs, boletus sautéed in garlic, trompetas de la muerte mushrooms bathed in a rich-smelling broth – and you are diving into one of Spain’s most traditional and transcendent gastronomic experiences.
Of course, Castile-León is not the only place in Spain with a longstanding tradition of wild mushroom gathering, sales and consumption. According to Miguel Segura, the Secretary of FETRUSE, the Federación Española De Empresarios De Setas y Trufas (Spanish Federation of Wild Mushroom and Truffle Companies), depending on the year, wild mushrooms can be found all over the country. In general, however, the most important regions in terms of collection are Castile-Leon, Catalonia, Andalusia and Galicia, in that order.
I called Miguel in an effort to get a handle on the magnitude of this hugely significant market in terms of production quantities, consumption, sales and export. He says that in recent years the mass distribution center Mercabarna has seen upwards of 500 tons of wild mushrooms pass through its stalls annually, but he also reminds me that it is virtually impossible to truly quantify the scope of these products. Given that wild mushroom collection in Spain is a national pastime, individual consumption and small-scale sales to restaurants and local markets are often untraceable and unaccounted for.
Wild mushroom-wrangling Spanish chefs
Though precise data may be elusive, the opportunities to taste these seasonal treats are not. Of the 1,500 types of wild mushrooms found here, approximately forty-five are considered worthy on a gastronomic level, while the average fungi enthusiast is familiar with only around fourteen. The best known are undoubtedly the meaty Boletus edulis (Ceps), the bright orange Níscalos (Lactarius deliciosus), Chantarelles (Cantharellus cibarius), Caesar's Mushrooms (Amanita caesarea), the Black Trumpet Mushrooms (Craterellus cornucopioides), known here as Trompeta de la Muerte; and Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus eryngii), or Setas de cardo, to name a few.
There is no better way to begin to understand what this wide variety signifies in culinary terms than in the company of the most adept wild mushroom-wrangling chefs from this region and beyond. Here, though technique is important, the product rules.
This is the sentiment expressed by many of the chefs I spoke to while writing this article. For example, the gregarious brothers Pedro Mario and Oscar Pérez of El Ermitaño Restaurant in Benavente (Zamora) usually walk through the woods near their town collecting setas with local biologists. Seasoned mushroom specialist Gloria Lucía Martín of Restaurante El Empalme in Rionegro del Puente (Zamora), knows the best way to store wild mushrooms for months after the season ends: by preserving them sliced and covered in sugar. Another expert with these products, chef Fátima Pérez de Andrés, thinks that "we have to treat wild mushrooms with the respect they deserve”. To illustrate this point, she likes cooking several varieties of setas while focusing on two factors: “The flavor and personality of the wild mushroom variety and the flavor that you, as a chef, want to impart”.
Is it possible to innovate in culinary terms with wild mushrooms? Elena Lucas Gonzalo of Restaurante La Lobita in Navaleno (Soria), defends “the sweet world of setas”, sharing her use of wild mushrooms in jams, custards, flans and other desserts. Pastry chef Julián Arranz Ortega of Pastelería Arranz in Pedrajas de San Esteban (Valladolid), offers a personal point of view about dessert and setas: “Tiramisu Castellana”, made with a Black Trumpet mushroom-infused mousse, as well as a taste of his incredibly earthy and rich wild mushroom-and-chocolate bonbons. Chef Óscar García Marina of Soria’s own Restaurante El Baluarte, has developed a scientific focus about the use of avant-garde culinary techniques applied to wild mushrooms.
For a short time every fall, their restaurants and many others all around Spain pay tribute to these wonderful and unique products, creating dishes that excite the imagination and tantalize the taste buds, proving year after year the value of these Spanish gastronomic treasures.
Every autumn, some 43 gastronomically significant varieties make their way into Spanish commerce, exports, tourism and food services, creating an annual mushroom frenzy that is as significant as it is fleeting