Italy? Yes. France? Of course. But Spain? Discover a region where the truffles and mushrooms aren’t just delicious but one of the area’s biggest industries and tourist attractions.
‘He got bitten by a snake out here a few months ago, he almost died!’ The man from the company Tuber Viveros ruffles the neck of his dog with affection, ‘but he’s okay now and happy back at work.’ His dog looks up at him adoringly, keen to get on with his job.
That job is to sniff out truffles, because somewhere in this massive plantation of trees stretching out in all directions, the black gold lies buried. The dog’s work is made a little easier by the fact that every tree is almost certain have a truffle or two amongst its roots, some ripe some not. That’s because the element of chance was reduced by a discovery back in the 1970s.
‘Scientists worked out how to inoculate the roots of certain tree saplings with truffle spores’, my guide tells me as we stride out across the plantation, his dogs running ahead and questing around busily. ‘When the trees reach around ten years old, truffles will begin to form’.
Truffles are a form of parasite on tree roots, but a benign one. They cannot synthesise sugars and other carbohydrates themselves, they have to get them from plants. They use the tree’s carbohydrates to make filaments that spread through the soil in an ever-widening net and, as they do so, they send back nutrients to the grateful tree.
At some point, late in the year, some filaments come together and create a fruit, the truffle. This then rapidly gains weight and when ripe puts out the odour which the dogs pick up on.
He explains that the grass above a truffle also tends to die back, which gives humans a rough idea where a truffle might be. But we can’t tell if it’s ripe or not and can’t risk digging it up and wasting it, only the dog’s nose knows for sure. He directs the dog to some likely looking spots and after checking out a few the dog soon makes it clear where he wants his master to dig by scrabbling the earth up furiously.
Using what looks like a medieval dagger, we make the hole bigger and uncover a truffle the size of a ping-pong ball. My guide lets the dog sniff it, to reinforce training, then rewards the now deliriously happy canine with some treats he keeps in his pocket. I have a sniff of the truffle too and it’s gorgeous. Dimethyl sulfide is the correct name for what causes the aroma and it’s actually related to the smell of cabbage, which is why some people don’t like it hard though that is to believe.
With the dog happily bounding around us, we walk onward in the now increasing drizzle to try and find some more treasure.
Mycology matters in Soria
The truffle we found, Black Truffle Soria (Tuber melanosporum), is named after the nearby town of Soria in the region of Castile y Leon, about three hours drive from Madrid. The second highest town in Spain, it’s a town that loves its truffles and mushrooms and its weather and geography are perfect for both.
In a good year the region can see 5,000 kilos of black truffle collected from around 1700 hectares of plantations. Much of the Soria truffle harvest is exported, as its quality is appreciated worldwide. Prices vary with the harvest, but a kilo of truffles might fetch around €1000 in a good year. It’s a major part of the economy, as is the mushroom tourism business but more of that later.
The town lavishly celebrates its truffles and mushrooms (hongos) this time every year with the restaurants and bars all serving creative dishes made from both. And there’s also a two-day mycology conference where remarkable mushroom dishes are demonstrated by leading chefs and the science of fungi passionately discussed.
I spend my first evening happily wandering the narrow car-free streets and trying mushroom dishes in tapas bars all across the ancient, pretty town. In La Chistera I get a two mushroom choux ball over a glass of rich foaming mushroom consommé. In La Candela chef cooks boletus mushrooms and eggs at the table for me in a frying pan that has been fiercely heated in the kitchen and rushed out quickly. No time for plates I scoop up the delicious mess up from the pan with crusty bread.
Next in La Cepa, the tapas is a flatbread topped with a selection of mushrooms, potato, a piece of crab, some carrot, mayonnaise and finally mango flavoured with truffle. It’s a true taste bomb
Everywhere I go that evening I grab one amazing mushroom dish and one glass of wine, the local and lovely Ribera del Duero named for the river that flows through the town. I finally get back to my cute hotel high up on the hill very happy, but rather wobbly.
Mushroom tourism is mushrooming
Would you travel to pick mushrooms? The Spanish do and they come to the Parque Micológico de Pinar Grande near Soria. Here in 2,500 hectares of accessible pine forest the rangers tell me there are more mushroom varieties than one can count, although around 2700 is the usual figure quoted.
After buying a low priced permit you can pick all you want, within reason, and there are guides to take you out and advise you. The whole thing is run in an eco-friendly and very responsible way, rangers patrol constantly to preserve the flora and fauna while a trompe l’oeil mushroom man watches spookily from out of the woods.
The park website provides daily updates on what mushrooms may be available the next day, or next week, carefully monitoring weather patterns so that the chances of a visitor having a fruitless day are minimised.
Looking down at our basket, I longed for a camping gas stove, some butter, garlic and bread so I could to eat all that bosky bounty on the spot. Next time I’ll rent somewhere in town.
Michelin mushrooms on stage
Seeing what a proper chef can do with mushrooms in Soria and around the area is easy. Restaurant Baluarte for example is where chef Oscar Garcia Marina, often labelled the best chef in Castilla y León, can be found.
My mushroom lunch there of nine courses produced one sensation after another, with witty plays on mushroom textures – infused, raw, fried, pickled, dried – as well as a wide range of mushroom varieties. It even ended with a mushroom based dessert but the artistry never overwhelmed the flavours.
The next day is the conference and as well as the cooking demos there are break out discussions. The cooking is incredible, Oscar does a good show, as does Nacho Manzana the three star chef who is also executive chef of Iberica in the UK.
Bill Jones, a genial Canadian who has been helping me eat my way to an early grave, gets up on stage to give a talk from his experiences as author, chef and forager at his restaurant Deerholme on Vancouver Island. His jokes get a bit lost in translation so I find myself the only person laughing in a room full of Spanish chefs, but he cooks some great mushroom dishes that easily cross the language barrier,
At lunch the tapas brought out have a lot of mushroom in them, of course, but my favourite thing is the Torrezno.
Torrezno is pork belly that’s been marinated and dried, cut into strips and then fried fiercely in olive oil. It’s undoubtedly the best pork and crackling I have ever eaten and so I buy some later, along with the highly-rated local chorizo, to smuggle home buried deep in my suitcase.
Soria and its surrounds have been a bit of a surprise; Spain seems to have so many wonderful undiscovered food areas that it’s a shame so many gourmands head to the increasing tourist trap of San Sebastian.
As well as the food, the region is rich in natural wonders such as The Cañón del Río Lobos Nature Park, where a giant Griffon vulture circled over my head, clearly gauging whether I would survive the beautiful walk through the canyon to the Chapel of San Bartolomé, one of the most important sites of the Order of the Knights Templar.
And I won’t forget the wood-oven cooked suckling lamb in the restaurant El Lagar de Isilla in Arunda, made more remarkable by being taken under the restaurant after lunch to discover a deep and massive network of underground galleries, dating back to the XV century, where wine was once made and stored and that have secret entrances spread out all over the town.
Yes it seems that in this wonderful part of Spain, there’s just as much going on under the ground as as there is on it.
Our thanks to the Spanish Tourist Office
We stayed at:
Hotel Termal Burgo de Osma,
Calle Universidad, 5,
42300 El Burgo de Osma, Soria
Hotel Leonor Mirón
Paseo del Mirón, s/n,