Snuffling for truffles in Spain

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.

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Gourmet’s best friend

‘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’.

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On the hunt

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.

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Is this the truffle you’re looking for?

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

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The aroma is everything

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.

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A little mushroom treat

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.

Tapas tasting

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Creative mushroom tapas

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.

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And some more mushrooms

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

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Miles and miles of mushrooms

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.

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Don’t disrespect the forest

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.

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Garlic, butter and let’s go

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

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Oscar Garcia Marina

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.

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Just one more picture

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.

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The end of the canyon

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.

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Best lamb ever

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

www.spain.info

www.ineedspain.com

 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,

42005 Soria

Mountains of magic

Nick finds out of ski season Switzerland is all about lush landscapes, fine vistas and plenty of cheese and chocolate.

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Interlaken is a centre for tandem parasailing

The parasailers circle over town like colourful vultures, perhaps lured by the smell of cheese? It’s hard to avoid the aromas of Emmentaler in a country where it’s eaten as often as we eat cheddar.

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The holes are made by the trapped gases during maturation

Emmentaler with its classic ‘cartoon’ holes is often regarded as a cheese suitable only for children, but Emmental eaten in Switzerland is another taste experience altogether.The milk of course is crucial, in Switzerland it comes from cows that graze on grass made lush by the snow melt. Continue reading

Oiling the kitchen wheels with Borderfields rapeseed oils

Forget olive oil, corn oil, vegetable oil and any other old oils because rapeseed oil is the new frying choice and what’s more it’s 100% UK sourced and bottled. Nick Harman goes to see how the seeds become liquid gold..

Bottled with love

Rapeseed oil, known as Canola oil in America perhaps for obvious reasons, has had a relatively short history in the UK but has been going  from strength to strength with supply sometimes being outstripped by demand. Especially when endorsed on the TV.

‘Well, Greg Wallace mentioned how good it was on Masterchef a few years back and the next day sales went through the roof,’ says Jon Hammond, Executive Director of Hammond Food Oils as we duck through plastic curtains into another section of the rapeseed pressing and bottling plant near Nottingham. ‘It was like the old Delia effect, do you remember when she recommended that saucepan?’ Who could forget?

Rapeseed genuinely is a seed, a tiny black round seed that s identical in look to the mustard seed used in Indian cooking, or the cabbage seed we plant in vegetable plots. This is because it’s a part of the same brassica family and even smells rather the same. Today its unmistakable bright yellow flowers are a familiar part of the UK’s colour palette all summer long.

It’s harvest time comes in August and the seeds are arriving at the factory in their millions where they are quickly sieved and sorted to remove unwanted flower and stalk debris before heading to the cold presser. The woody debris goes to be used as biofuel for heating, nothing is wasted not even it seems the waste

Chicken feed, no waste

Chicken feed, no waste

‘Chicken feed!’ says Jon showing me a sample of squidgy green material left after the pressing, it’s perfect for chickens, full of nutrients and gooey with the last traces of the oil that couldn’t be extracted by the relatively (compared to hot pressing) less efficient cold press method. ‘Cold pressing though preserves more of the goodness,’ explains Jon ‘and we press and filter the seed five times, that’s more than any other brand on the market, for the purest product

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Gold standard

The oil pours sinuously down pipes to be refined ready for bottling, gradually going from green to gold in the process.

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The machine marches on

This is a small factory with a small workforce where the bottling machine chugs away cheerfully, occasionally stopping and being tended by its minders, before lurching back into clinking life again. The bottles are wrapped with their date marked labels and pass out through a catflap affair to be hustled into boxes by hand ready for dispatch.

Not just plain rapeseed oil either, much of the produce is flavoured with things such as lemon, basil, chili and garlic to meet increasing demand.

The natural oil is relatively neutral in flavour,  it has a slight nuttiness that’s warm and embracing and not the assertive pepperiness of so much olive oil as well as half the saturated fat and and a near perfect blend of omegas 3, 6 and 9.

The neutral flavour makes it ideal for frying, as does its high smoke point that means that unlike olive oil it can be made to go very hot indeed without choking you out of the kitchen.

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Cooks’ choice

A big fan is Michelin starred chef, Kenny Atkinson who first won a Michelin star at St Martin’s on the Isle Hotel  and then at his own restaurant, House of Tides in Newcastle. He’s been a big fan he says since he was obliged to find a substitute for olive oil when cooking for the Great British Menu. ‘Everything had to be sourced from the UK obviously, so that meant no olive oil. But I fell in love with rapeseed oil and now that’s all I use in my restaurant kitchen.’

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Grate for any dish

To prove how good it is he gets busy and cooks Grilled Mackerel with salad of fennel and an orange, brown shrimp and ginger vinaigrette, whips up a vibrant Watercress Pesto Sauce and then Lemon and Thyme Cake Bars. Follow the links for the recipes.

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Mayonnaise made easy

All delicious I find,  as I eat the dishes under a clear blue sky out in the Nottinghamshire countryside just a mile or two away from where the oil was produced.

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Ready to fry

Rapeseed oil is one of our island’s most perfect products it seems and is slipping ever deeper into the clued-up chef’s toolbox.Try some yourself and get the golden touch.

The full Borderfields range includes:

Borderfields British Cold Pressed Rapeseed Oil (500ml and 250ml)

Borderfields Scottish Cold Pressed Rapeseed Oil (500ml and 250ml)

Borderfields Chilli Infused Rapeseed Oil (250ml)

Borderfields Basil Infused Rapeseed Oil (250ml)

Borderfields Garlic Infused Rapeseed Oil (250ml)

Borderfields Lemon Infused Rapeseed Oil (250ml)

Borderfields Garlic & Ginger Stir Fry Oil (250ml)

Available at Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda stores nationwide, as well as selected Tesco stores and www.amazon.co.uk – with RRPs ranging from £1.99 – £4.50.

The Wilderness Festival is my kind of festival

blanc2The love the mob feels for Raymond Blanc is remarkable. He emerges from the back of the Banqueting Tent at the Wilderness Festival looking, as usual, eerily like Dudley Moore but in chef whites and the crowd immediately goes bananas.

He becomes the epicentre of a horde, dare we say a swarm, of phone-toting fans keen to get selfies with the grinning Raymond. As many of horde are young girls and women scantily dressed to allow for the day’s heat, his grin becomes even wider. My wife grabs her phone and disappears into the crush as fast as anyone else and eventually emerges triumphant with her own personal memento of what has been a very memorable occasion. Continue reading

Meeting Marco Pierre White. The shark at sea

First of the rockstar chefs, rejecter of Michelin Stars and grabber of headlines, Marco Pierre White is one of P&O Cruises Food Heroes. Nick Harman catches up with him mid-voyage

IMG_2347‘’I signed around 1500 of these yesterday,’ says Marco Pierre White indicating a pile of menus in front of him, ‘there’s about another 1000 still to go.’

‘You should get a rubber stamp made up.’ I suggest tentatively, ‘that would make it a lot easier wouldn’t it?’ He turns the Marco stare on me and there’s a beat of silence. ‘But it won’t be the same will it?’ he points out, ‘the people getting it won’t know it’s fake, but I will.’

boatNo longer a Michelin 3 star chef, he eventually threw them back saying that he was sick of trying to impress people who knew less about cooking than he did, Marco is still a man who doesn’t cut corners and doesn’t let customers down. Continue reading