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

Loving Luxembourg

It’s one of the world’s richest countries; it’s also one of the smallest. Nick Harman legs it over to Luxembourg to see what’s cooking.

IMG_4839It’s kind of appropriate when flying off to a country that’s barely 84 km long that I get on board an airplane equally as tiny. Just as France could swallow the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg many times over, you could fit quite a few Dash-8 airplanes into a modern jetliner.

The Luxair turboprop Dash -8 is the plane that makes the daily short hops from London City Airport to Luxembourg, it buzzes down the runway like an angry wasp and then climbs steeply out to minimise noise nuisance over Docklands.

Just over an hour later and we are over the heavily forested countryside of Luxembourg, the country is essentially a rural one and in its south eastern area is a large chunk of the Mosel valley, from where Luxembourg gets its Crémant de Luxembourg sparkling wine, a special type of wine within the Moselle Luxembourgeoise appellation. It’s drunk as an aperitif just about everywhere in the Duchy, as I will find out.

IMG_4849Luxembourg is a country yes, but it is also a city, which can get confusing. The city is a short ride from the airport, regular buses run back and forth and a tramway is being built, although most residents pull a face when you ask about it, suggesting that no one expects it to be ready anytime soon.

Within minutes of landing I am taking my weekend bag into the 4 star Hotel Simoncini, a bright smart and modern place bang in the centre with clean, sharp lined rooms and works of art in every corner.

Out to investigate

IMG_4929The general impression people have of Luxembourg, if they’ve never been that is, is one of lawyers, politicians and bankers all living well off the fat of the European Union, and it’s certainly true that the place has the scent of money. Fancy cars are everywhere and the men and women wear the sort of clothes that don’t scream wealth, but subtly demonstrate through cut, colour and fabric that they are not cheap either.

IMG_4984The city is divided by the deep Alzette valley. On one side is the beautiful old town perched on its cliff top, and once the most impregnable place in Europe thanks to its fortifications. Today it’s protected by Unesco from any attacks by modern day marauders trying to make money in property.

IMG_4956Across the gorge is the Kirchberg district where shiny office towers dominate, but not so long ago this was, as the cliché goes, all fields. And somewhat oddly, fields do still exist just behind some of the more massive shrines to capitalism thrown up by the big banks.

IMG_4966All is not empty hearted money though because here too is the Grand Duke Jean Museum of Modern Art, or Mudam for short, where I wandered happily. The museum is literally built on the old stone fortifications, and it has been done brilliantly so that old and new are equally visible at the same time.

Luxembourg has also realised that an area of town made up of nothing but office buildings is a soulless empty place at nights and weekends, so all new buildings have to dedicate their ground floors to shops and restaurants.

IMG_4908I ate lunch in the Aqua (Hotel Melia) close by to Mudam and it was very good; fine cooking in a stylish, modern glass environment with views out to the city.

IMG_4911Afterwards I went around the corner to see inside the Philharmonie concert hall, designed by the architect Christian de Portzamparc, a place of absolutely stunning design and, I was told, perhaps the finest acoustics in any hall anywhere in the world.

The old town and some stiff walking

Back in the old town there’s plenty to see. Obviously there is serious shopping to be had here but it’s not all Bond Street, even though one place I peered into sold nothing but classic watches and 4500 Euros seemed to be the cheapest one on offer.

IMG_5009If you’re not into clothes and watches there is food in plenty here, from the very finest restaurants serving classic French cuisine to modern fusion places such as Go Ten where platters of easy-eating and stylish Japanese style food are available all day. In the evening it becomes central to the whole busy bar and eating scene for the young Luxembourgers who gather in this charming part of town.

The morning food market the next day, Saturday, in the historic Place Guillaume was packed with good things to lust over and afterward there was a wide choice of coffee and pastry shops to try.

IMG_4897 The locals endlessly debate the merits of the very old and established Patisserie Namur against the very modern Patisserie Oberweis, but both have the capacity to bring you to your knees at the sight of incredible pastries and cakes as art form.

Just as well then that there are great walks to burn some of those calories off. For the less active the Chemin de la Corniche is a pedestrian promenade that runs along the line of the 17th-century city ramparts with fabulous views across the river valley. Or you can descend, fighting the pull of gravity, to the valley floor itself where the small winding streets come alive at night, especially in the old brewery area, the Grund quarter, now home to lots and lots of lively bars and restaurants.

IMG_5018Here too is the massive Neumünster Abbey, a cultural centre where there is always something going on, especially jazz concerts on a Sunday often to be enjoyed for free with a coffee, and if you’re hungry upstairs is Brasserie Neumünster’ where easy eating buffets are served and are good value too I found.

Chocolate and cheeses

IMG_4862Good news is that there is no need to clamber back up the steep winding roads afterwards, an elevator hewn into the rock lifts you back to the old town in seconds. And moments later I’m having a hot chocolate in front of the Luxembourg Grand Ducal Palace, watching other tourists pose with the stony-faced palace guard. The Luxembourg Royal Family, happily retained after a nationwide referendum in 1919, live here much of the time close by their subjects who by all accounts love them dearly.

And I love the chocolate shop dearly. The Chocolate House has more than 60 hot chocolates on IMG_5026offer, with a large choice of pralines, pies and homemade cakes too. Slimming it isn’t. All I can do after is to walk the streets very slowly, poking my nose into the incredible cheese shop at Kaempff Kohler where you can select some cheeses and sit down with a glass of wine from the wine shop and have a taste trip like no other.

Dinner is served

And later, hungry once more I descend to eat at UmPlateau, a charming place in an old house. Upstairs is cosy, the rooms feeling like someone’s sitting room. Downstairs is a bar built out back, a place that seems popular with the more jetsetty style of local and which has over 25 wines by the glass, as well as a whisky menu.

IMG_4971The food is modern European all over, well done without being adventurous and well priced too. Sharing platters of jamon, croquettes, grilled artichokes, stuffed bell peppers vie with a simple but fine steak and chips for attention. It fuels me for the walk back up to the old town very nicely.

After another pleasant night’s sleep, it’s a very quiet city away from the bar areas, it’s off the airport for another ride in the Dash8 and an exciting night-time low descent over St Paul’s before we land. Luxembourg City was a pleasant surprise, a great place for a weekend break and not at all what I imagined I would find.

Thanks to 

Office National du Tourisme de Luxembourg

Les bonnes addresses.

www.visitluxembourg.com  

Léa Linster Delicatessen

Gourmet shop of Luxembourg’s famous female Chef

4 rue de l’Eau, L-1449 Luxembourg www.lealinster.lu

Patisserie Namur

Family company in the 6th generation

27 rue des Capucins, L-1313 Luxembourg www.namur.lu

Patisserie Oberweis,Purveyor to the court

16 Grand’rue, L-1660 Luxembourg www.oberweis.lu

Maison Kaempff-Kohler

Founded in 1922

18 Place Guillaume, L-1648 Luxembourg www.kaempff-kohler.lu

Pâtisserie Cathy Goedert

8 rue Chimay, L-1333 Luxembourg www.cathygoedert.lu

Golden Bean Coffe Experience

23, rue Chimay, L-1333 Luxembourg www.goldenbean.lu

Kaale Kaffi coffee & vintage shop

9, rue de la Boucherie, L-1247 Luxembourg.

Dipso – the Wine Republic (wine bar)

4 rue de la Loge, L-1945  Luxembourg www.dipso.lu

A symphony of restaurants on the Anthem of the seas

Up until now to experience 18 restaurants at sea, you had to head to the Caribbean or the Far East. Not anymore because the new Royal Caribbean ship Anthem of the Seas will be sailing the route from Southampton to Europe. I boarded for a trial run

japLast year I went aboard the sister ship to Anthem of the Seas, the Quantum of the Seas, so you’d think I’d be a little blasé about the size of these ships by now but I’m not.

Eager to catch my first glimpse of this brand new big beast from Royal Caribbean I was driving somewhat erratically down the dock road at Southampton, constantly glancing sideways out the window until I saw it. Fifteen stories at least in height it was easily the biggest thing around, the sun dazzling back off its myriad glass balconies and glazed stern.

Parking in its shadow was like parking next to a block of flats but getting in is easy. Royal Caribbean staff armed with wireless tablets scan your downloaded barcode which shows them the selfie you uploaded earlier and you’re on and ready to be impressed.

wineGlass lifts rise and fall in a giant atrium next to a mall that could grace a small town and which is packed with designer goods shops. Time to quickly grab a fortifying snack from Michael’s Genuine Pub, an American idea of what a pub should be from James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Schwartzthat dominates the area. Craft own-label bottled beer, as cold as only Americans seem to know how to serve it, and a bite from his menu of a perfect Scotch egg – warm and with the egg slightly runny – a slippery pork slider and a  crunchy falafel and then off down miles of corridors to find my cabin and get settled in.

Most if not all cruise ships use ID cards so you can charge items on board, open your cabin door and generally be identified. Royal Caribbean use the WOWband. These watch-like rubber devices manage room access, on board purchases, dining and tour reservations and never demagnetize, unlike the usual smart cards which can sometimes leave you the wrong side of your cabin door at 2 am with the depressing prospect of a few mile hike back to customer services.

IMG_3812With just under two days on board on this demo sailing there’s no time to lose and so it’s down to the creative restaurant Wonderland for lunch one of the nine speciality restaurants on board. It’s a small, at least for this ship, restaurant that serves what might be called El Bulli lite type food.

wonderland-1Just as the outrageous catwalk fashions eventually filter down to the High Street so Ferran Adria’s outrageous cuisine has filtered down to the masses. And it’s very well done; lots of surprises smoke and mirrors and the main point is achieved – diners start to laugh and talk and have fun. Oh and the food’s tasty too, so it’s definitely one to visit when sailing.

More conventional food can be found all over the ship, from the self-serve global cuisine immensity of Windjammer Marketplace, where you can eat until you burst, to pizza restaurants, burger places, hot dog food trucks and a smart deli/cafe. And then there are the speciality restaurants

anthemofseasmainI loved Izumi where star chef Travis Kamiyama demonstrated his impressive knife skills and served up stunning sushi that was the equal of any I’ve had on dry land and also Devinly Decadence where a healthy menu of favourites under 500 calories, from bestselling author and chef Devin Alexander was served high up on a deck which is open to the air on the warm evenings.

tableOur very own Jamie is adding to his vast personal wealth with a Jamie’s Italian on board, but I knew what to expect there so instead I tried Chops Grille where you can eat the first dry-aged steaks at sea, each aged for nearly four weeks, as well as Maine lobster, veal parmesan, grilled branzino and other classic dishes.

The dining on board Anthem is called Dynamic Dining and, as far as could comprehend, it works thusly:

cocktailDynamic Dining Choice gives you the freedom to pick and choose your restaurants and dining times each day and night. The venues’ menus change throughout the cruise, with guest favorites and new specialty dishes.

Dynamic Dining Classic is the option for those who prefer the traditional main dining style with the same dining time each night, with the same wait staff and dining companions throughout the cruise and is available on a first come, first serve basis.

pass48 hours is not long enough to really get to grips with the food choice on offer, not when there is so much else to do on this floating city including stunning shows, solariums, dodgem cars, Flowrider surfing, a sky diving simulator and North Star, a giant pod on an arm that swings you vertiginously out and above the ship.

The brand new Anthem, so new it was still awaiting its official naming ceremony when we were aboard, will be cruising the routes around the Mediterranean and Canary Islands out of Southampton until October before moving to farther- flung places so this is a rare chance to get aboard and get into those restaurants.

Eating the South of France

Blue skies, a gentle breeze and food for the tasting everywhere. Nick Harman spends a few days in the South of France. Day one.

IMG_1929‘Duck your heads!’ shouts the captain in French. Luckily I speak a bit of the lingo or else right now I’d be a lot shorter in stature. The top of my bonce comes uncomfortably close to the base of the bridge as our flat boat shoots expertly beneath it.

DSC_3286Sète is a sea of bridges. Stitched through with canals that form working highways between the Mediterranean sea on one side and the Thau lagoon on the other, it’s a busy fishing port right to its very centre. Continue reading

Tacks for the memory – going for grub in Gothenburg

A mastery of Swedish, gained from watching TV crime dramas, means Nick Harman is well prepared for a great food weekend in Gothenburg

I’m using it all the time since arriving in Sweden; ‘tack’ means ‘thanks’ in English. It’s the only Swedish word that TV has taught me and it’s coming in handy as I try to eat in as many places in Gothenburg as I can.

There is great food to be found all over when wandering the streets of Sweden’s second city, just under two hours flight from the UK. No longer is it all about the herring and the meatballs, although those are still done very well. Continue reading