Mushroom picking ... in Spain?
Who would have thought it? This is one of the things I love about this country – once you realise that the age-old expectations of beaches, paella, and Sangria are actually nothing more than vague and dull stereotypes, you find yourself uncovering an extremely diverse nation. Food, landscape, people, language, and even daily routines vary incredibly from one region to the next. So much so that I have often asked myself the question: am I still in Spain? And the beautiful thing is, those beaches are always there waiting for you for when you need them.
Let’s take mushrooms as an example. Here in the province of León, in the north-west of Spain, as soon as the infamous cold begins and rain drops start falling from the sky, wild mushrooms start growing like mushrooms (what else?). This sparks the whole population of León to suddenly go crazy for mushrooms; we talk about them, cook them, eat them, put them on display in school, send photos of them, and of course, go and pick them.
This last phenomenon is taken very seriously by some Spaniards: if you venture out in your car to the Leonese mountains on a Sunday, be careful to drive no faster than 5 miles per hour. Mushroom-pickers are everywhere. And there even seems to be a scale of amateurs to professionals. The amateurs are easy to spot: they carry their plastic supermarket bag in one hand, and stroll along the roadside chatting or enjoying the landscape. The professionals are perhaps less visible: you will find them foraging amongst the bushes with a handmade woven basket, identifying every species at the blink of an eye. These people know that mushrooms do not like plastic. I was once very impressed by one mushroom-picker and her long pole with a very specific net on the end – supposedly her mushroom-picking device.
The Spanish passion for this very common food is also evident through the fact that they have a whole list of vocabulary for ‘mushroom’. In the primary school where I work, the children have made a beautiful autumn display, including a collection of mushrooms and their names. If they stood in front of the table, they could probably point out the ‘boletus’, the ‘morchella’ and the ‘lepista’, tell you which ones were edible, and which ones they ate for dinner last night.
And after all that, I still hate mushrooms.