Mushroom Hunting in Catalunya

A variety of bolets freshly picked from an autumn forest in Catalunya

Once the autumn rains begin to fall there is a well-established tradition in many parts of Spain, especially Catalunya, of heading for the hills and hunting for mushrooms.

And yes, it’s hunting! The locals don’t call it picking, gathering or foraging for wild mushrooms, they call it hunting – unless maybe they’re referring to the likes of us blow-ins who don’t really know what we’re doing. While in English we might in some contexts use the verb “hunt” to mean “looking for”, in both Catalan and Spanish they specifically use their verb for “to hunt” (caçar / cazar) as in “to pursue and capture” when they are talking about searching for wild mushrooms in the woods.

Be thankful for that rain!

The Pyrenees, and their foothills here in Girona Province, are some of the best places to go hunting for mushrooms. It won’t have escaped your attention that we often get a fair bit of rain here in autumn, and while this may not exactly delight some people, there is a bright side: rain means a bumper season for mushrooms! Of course, that’s not to say that it’s just a question of wandering up into the nearest hills and picking all around you! The Catalan word for mushroom is bolet (in Spanish: seta, in French: champignon) and those brave and fearless hunters of bolets are boletaires, whose skills are handed down from one generation to the next. In olden times people used to pick bolets in the hills and mountains to sell in markets down in the towns, and this was economically important for a lot of rural families. Nowadays it is more of a pastime, or just a pleasant way to occasionally spend an autumn afternoon, but genuine boletaires will still have their established favourite areas for hunting their bolets and these are usually kept as closely guarded secrets. If you can convince a regular boletaire to bring you along on a “hunt” with them you’ll have a much better chance of a successful “harvest”!

Mind the Death Cap!

There’s another fairly obvious and very good reason to bring a qualified expert along too… and no doubt you can guess what that is! There are, of course, many different varieties of mushrooms, and not all are edible. Some are even poisonous and can land you in the hospital pretty quickly should you consume them. One of these is called the ‘Death Cap’, but in the forest, it doesn’t come with a name tag! There have been a number of fatalities over the years, although this is quite rare. Boletaires, of course, can tell the different species apart and know which ones to leave well enough alone.

A poisonous “Death Cap” (Amanita phalloides) in a Catalan forest.

The popularity of mushroom picking has grown massively over the last decade so not everyone foraging in the hills these days is a boletaire. With so many amateurs joining the hunt, the Generalitat de Catalunya (Catalan government) has even created a webpage with information on which varieties are edible and which ones are poisonous. This webpage is in Catalan, Spanish and Occitan Aranès – pretty much all the languages spoken this side of the border in the eastern Pyrenees – as well as in English. They’re certainly covering all their bases and taking no chances there! It even debunks a couple of myths around methods of differentiating the edible from the toxic and includes some tips on how to correctly gather your bolets.

Foragers are encouraged to use wicker baskets rather than plastic bags as this allows the mushroom spores to be released back into the forest to repopulate, and also prevents fermentation. The explosion in popularity of mushroom foraging (not hunting, mind, because we’re talking about amateurs here!) largely stemmed from a TV show called Caçadors de Bolets that first aired on the Catalan language station TV3 in 2004 and ran until 2013. You guessed it; that translates as “Mushroom Hunters”!

So get off that sofa and out into the fresh air!

The “prey” aside, the reason why this activity has become so popular is that it allows folk to get out and reconnect with Mother Earth in the beautiful countryside we have all around us here in this green and luscious Province of Girona. Anyway, you’d need to find a fair amount of those tasty bolets to make yourself a decent dish, so just enjoy the day and don’t worry about the hunting too much and leave that to the real boletaires.

Besides, there are plenty of restaurants about that will have seasonally ‘mushroomy’ dishes on their menus so you can just get out and enjoy the fresh air and the smell of the forest and, once you’ve worked up an appetite, come down outta ‘them thar hills’ and head for somewhere like one of these lovely places:

  • La Calèndula; Regencós
    The head chef does the foraging herself for all the wild ingredients on the menu.
  • L’Arcada; Palamós
    The menu here changes regularly according to what ingredients are in season.

Incidentally, bolet season coincides with the start of wild boar hunting season. Wild boar and bolets stew certainly makes for a hearty November dinner and this particular restaurant has a hunting menu which is just delicious:

We know, because we’ve tried it! Better stock up on the red wine too!!

Happy hunting, and bon profit!

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