Pep González, a longtime mushroom forager, on a hunt for mushrooms in the forest.

Foragers in Catalonia embrace a new mushroom-hunting season after last year’s strict lockdown

This year, mushroom-hunting season is more anticipated than ever after last year’s strict quarantine measures kept most people in their own municipalities for the entire winter. The tradition is particularly strong in the northeast region of Catalonia. 

The World

Pep González, a longtime mushroom forager, on a hunt for mushrooms in the forest.

Lucía Benavides/The World

Every autumn, Barcelona explodes with mushrooms. They’re nearly everywhere you look: at neighborhood food markets, on restaurant lunch specials and on books in window displays.

This year, the mushroom-hunting season is more anticipated than ever after last year’s strict quarantine measures kept most people in their own municipalities for the entire winter. And while the activity is practiced throughout all of Spain, the tradition is particularly strong in the northeast region of Catalonia. 

Related: Ukraine is wild about mushrooms — even during the pandemic 

Pep González, a 49-year-old road maintenance worker from the small town of Calldetenes, has been going mushroom hunting since he was 12 years old. He first learned about the beloved fungi from his grandmother, who taught him all the secrets she knew about where to find the best ones. Since then, he said, his knowledge has only grown — a result of decades of mushroom hunting, reading and speaking with other passionate mushroom foragers. 

Pep González, a longtime mushroom forager, on a hunt for mushrooms in the forest. 

Pep González, a longtime mushroom forager, on a hunt for mushrooms in the forest.

Credit:

Lucía Benavides/The World 

On a recent weekday morning in the sleepy town of Alpens, about an hour and a half north of Barcelona, González served as a guide or boletaire, as they’re called in the regional language of Catalan, on a mushroom foraging hike. The term comes from the Catalan word for mushrooms, bolets.

Heading into the forest, González didn't recommend following a trail. He said the best mushrooms are out of sight. And right away, González said that nobody should speak too loudly.

“You need to learn to listen to the silence around us."

Pep González, mushroom forager, Calldetenes, Catalonia

“You need to learn to listen to the silence around us,” he said, as he held his index finger to his lips and then pointed to the trees.

In the silence emerged the sounds of ruffling of tree branches, cowbells in the distance, and, for a brief moment, an airplane flying overhead.

González said there’s a whole philosophy behind mushroom foraging. After all, the activity is not just about finding mushrooms, but about being in nature and paying attention to natural surroundings. A day of hiking and chatting, he said, will never garner bolet discoveries. 

Related: A traditional Catalan chestnut holiday 'coexists' with Halloween

Continuing in silence, the only sounds were the crunch of leaves and the aroma of rosemary and thyme. It didn't take long for González to find the first mushroom of the day. 

Pep González shows off a freshly cut cama de perdiu mushroom (chroogomphus rutilus), known in English as the brown slimecap or the copper spike. The 49-year-old has been mushroom hunting since he was 12, a trade he learned from his grandmother.

Pep González shows off a freshly cut cama de perdiu mushroom (chroogomphus rutilus), known in English as the brown slimecap or the copper spike. The 49-year-old has been mushroom hunting since he was 12, a trade he learned from his grandmother.

Credit:

Lucía Benavides/The World 

He gasped as he got closer: it's a bromosa, known in English as a "waxy cap," and hard to come by, he said. 

“These are some of the most delicious bolets out here,” González said. “We’re in luck today.”

Three fredolic mushrooms (tricholoma terreum), known in English as the grey knight or dirty tricholoma. They are a grey-capped mushroom of the Tricholoma genus, found largely in Europe.

Three fredolic mushrooms (tricholoma terreum), known in English as the grey knight or dirty tricholoma. They are a grey-capped mushroom of the Tricholoma genus, found largely in Europe.

Credit:

Lucía Benavides/The World 

But the rest of the two-hour hike was not so lucky. González commented often on the dryness of the forest — it hasn’t rained in over a week, which is uncommon this time of year.

“It used to rain three or four days a week, and in small doses,” he said. “But now, we’re getting more and more downpours or dry spells. And neither are good for bolets to grow.”

During the hike, dozens of inedible mushrooms turned up — some poisonous, and others, dried up or rotten. At the end of the day, González collected about 20 mushrooms of various types to take home. 

Throughout the two-hour hike, González found dozens of inedible mushrooms, some of which were poisonous. While most people choose to hike with someone who knows about mushrooms, there are apps available to help hikers detect which ones are safe to eat.

Throughout the two-hour hike, González found dozens of inedible mushrooms, some of which were poisonous. While most people choose to hike with someone who knows about mushrooms, there are apps available to help hikers detect which ones are safe to eat.

Credit:

 Lucía Benavides/The World 

“Each bolet has its own specific use for cooking,” González said. “Yellow foot is good for Spanish tortillas, penny buns are good for carpaccio and waxy caps are good for grilling.”

On the way back into town, González said this area is usually full of tourists on weekends. That’s led some people — especially farmers — to pressure local governments to charge for mushroom hunting and regulate the activity.

“A majority of forests in Catalonia are privately owned, even the one we visited today. ... Locals have been hiking these woods for decades, with little to no complaint from farmers, but in the past 10 years or so, it’s become a problem.”

Pep González, mushroom forager, Calldetenes, Catalonia

“A majority of forests in Catalonia are privately owned, even the one we visited today,” González said. “Locals have been hiking these woods for decades, with little to no complaint from farmers, but in the past 10 years or so, it’s become a problem.”

Mushroom hunting has become more popular than ever, attracting the attention of city people, who come in droves and often leave trash behind or damage the natural habitat. González said the massification of rural tourism has angered residents and farmers but it’s made local restaurant owners happy, as their businesses have grown.

And he himself is torn about it — he’s unsure regulation is the answer.

“On the one hand, I think the forest should be taken care of and paying a maintenance fee may work,” González said. “But on the other hand, the forest should belong to everybody, not just to those who can afford to come.”

González cuts some fredolic mushrooms to take home and eat.

Pep González cuts some fredolic mushrooms to take home and eat.

Credit:

Lucía Benavides/The World 

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Rosa Pujol, another boletaire from the town of Viver i Serrateix, about an hour west of Alpens, said she’s in favor of regulating the activity.

“At first I was against it, but now I think [regulations] should be implemented at least in the most hard-hit areas."

Rosa Pujol, boletaire, Viver i Serrateix, Catalonia

“At first I was against it, but now I think it should be implemented at least in the most hard-hit areas,” she said.

Pujol also learned the trade from her grandmother, who was an agricultural worker and sometimes sold the bolets she found to make extra money. 

“I think the type of fee should depend on the type of mushroom hunter,” Pujol said. “For those who want to make a profit off of it, maybe charge more. But for those who are just going to gather a few mushrooms to take home and eat, it doesn’t make sense to charge them much.”

At a family-run restaurant for lunch, just before digging into the starter (a creamy mushroom soup), a 75-year-old man walked in with two full bags of freshly picked mushrooms. He came in to sell them to the restaurant owners, whom he knows well from living in the area all his life.

“I brought in 4 kilos of bolets,” he said — roughly 8 pounds. “But some days I find up to 10 kilos’ worth.”

He said he charges per kilo, but won’t say how much. 

Like González, he goes mushroom hunting several times a week this time of year, and usually alone. 

“I don’t even take my dog with me,” he said, and González laughed. 

They say the reason for this solitary trekking is essential to mushroom hunting: True boletaires never share the best spots they’ve found.