In Search of the Hongo: Mushroom Foraging in Spain

Chanterelle Mushrooms, photo by Marti Buckley Kilpatrick

HONGOS

by

Marti Buckley Kilpatrick

The importance of the mushroom, or onddo  (Spanish: hongo) in Basque cuisine is undeniable; enter into any pintxo bar in San Sebastián and you nearly always encounter either a ración of seared porcini or a soft scramble of chanterelles, if not both. And while for many the Basque mushroom experience may stop at the end of their fork, the truth is that is only the beginning of the story.

The forests where the mushrooms are found in Basque Country can be shady beech forests or tall pine groves, depending on the mushroom. Towns from Bizkaia (Vizcaya) to Araba (Álava) celebrate a ‘mycology’ day in early November, which includes photo exhibitions of mushrooms, mushroom foraging and identification activities geared toward children, and, of course, a tasting of mushrooms and long lunches based around the season’s best.

Foraging, or ‘going for mushrooms’ is done primarily in forests predominantly oak and beech, which populate the inland part of Gipuzkoa, the province where San Sebastián is located. Teresa Dorronsoro lives in the small Basque village of Ataun, and on wet fall mornings, there is one thing on her mind: foraging.

“People go foraging for mushrooms in good weather as well as in bad,” says Teresa. “It’s true that in thick forests, or closed forests as we call them, if the weather is bad there’s not much light. It’s difficult to see the mushrooms, especially in autumn since the color is similar to fallen leaves.”

Unlike in English, there is a major linguistical distinction in Basque between mushrooms. There is no overarching categorical name, such as ‘mushroom’.  Onddo refers to the porcini family. Perretxiku is the word that encompasses all other wild mushrooms. One has to wonder if this specificity grows out of the intimate familiarity the Basques have with their fungi neighbors.

During the mushroom season, zizas (chantrelles) are abundant, typically served in an omelette or on top of various pintxos, Basque bar snacks. There are also saffron milk cap mushrooms (níscalos, also known as red pine mushrooms) that abound in the pine forests. “We Basques eat the níscalo as well, but Catalunyans are the ones that really forage this one,” says Teresa.

Single Porcini, photo by Teresa Dorronsoro

However, the star of the season is onddo beltza, or the boletus aereus. This choice fungus is widely known in English and Italian as the (black) porcini.  Its convex top can reach up to a foot in diameter, but they typically hover around six inches. This, the king of the mushrooms, has a rich, deep bronze color. The fat stem of the mushroom give it a cartoon-ish look, but the flavor on this is serious.  The dark outside gives way to a white, meaty interior. Upon cooking, it becomes almost silky.

A common offering in local restaurants is a plate of these, sliced and served with fried garlic and sea salt, perhaps with some chopped parsley.  A country hotel near Ataun is locally famous for its preparation of the onddo beltza and the more common onddo zuria, or white-fleshed porcini.  A slow confit in olive oil gives generous chunks of porcini a glorious texture. They are perched in a nest shape above potato slices and caramelized onions. The final touch is a bright egg yolk, lightly cooked yet still liquid, which forms a sauce when broken over the mushrooms.

In the countryside where Teresa lives, mushrooms are sign of the season, a most ephemeral gift from mother nature.  A dry year means fewer mushrooms, and this year in particular has been a scarce year for the fungi.  Everyone notices because mushrooms are more than just a food item; they are an activity, a topic of conversation, and a social gesture.

“Just now, by coincidence, a neighbor brought me some gibelurdinak [green-cracking Russula]”, says Teresa. “If they are tender and in good condition, they’re usually prepared sauteed with minced garlic…it’s delicious. And if they’re larger, they’re great in scrambled eggs.” She shows a picture she took of the mushrooms, piled in her neighbor’s bowl. The Basques‘ capacity for expounding on mushrooms foraged in the past and present is impressive.

 

TRY MARTI’S PORCINI VOLCANO RECIPE.

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