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As autumn approaches, something curious starts to happen in the mountains and forests of Catalunya. Come the weekend, hundreds of people head to the countryside to explore its mysterious nooks and crannies, searching for something elusive: the prized and adored bolet. If you know where to look, around 175 different species of edible wild mushroom can be found hidden across the land in the cooler months. These dedicated boletaires, or ‘mushroom hunters’—‘foragers’ doesn’t quite convey the sharp skill and passion that goes into it—are equipped with years of knowledge that is passed down through generations, keeping the best spots for finding mushrooms a close family secret.
Josep Roca Massons, 35, is one such boletaire. His first memories of mushroom foraging go back to trips with his parents and grandparents when he was around four or five. The family would drive up to the Pyrenees and set off on their hunt, heading for specific areas of forest that they knew could be particularly rewarding—their ‘secret places’ that no one else was aware of. Josep learnt to identify the edible species and tell them apart from the poisonous ones, and he soon inherited his parents’ passion. The family still goes up to the mountains as soon as the season begins, although these days, with no small children to guide and entertain, the hunt is a more strategic affair. Each person sets off in a separate direction with a basket and inspects the forest floor until together they have searched the entire area. Often they will return from a morning’s forage with a bounty of up to 10 kilogrammes of mushrooms each. They then go home and begin the mission of washing, cooking and preserving what they have found.
“If I had the time, I would go mushroom foraging every single weekend,” says Josep. To him, there is nothing like that feeling of solitude and connecting with nature—just himself, the forest, hopefully a few bolets, and cows grazing nearby.
That is why he is unsure about the current trend of mushroom foraging that, over the last decade, has seen more and more people head out into the countryside in search of bolets. The trend stems in part from the popularity of a TV3 programme, Caçadors de Bolets, which caused an explosion in foraging activity when it was first broadcast in 2004, and shows little sign of slowing down. On one hand, the programme has educated the public about this fascinating tradition. On the other, the crowds of new foragers in the forests have meant that life-long boletaires like Josep, accustomed to solitude and an abundance of mushrooms, are being pushed further and further afield in search of secluded, mushroom-rich spots. The large numbers of people are also beginning to take their toll on the forests, with some disrespecting the environment and leaving litter. Not to mention the increase in inexperienced mushroom hunters landing themselves in hospital after accidentally consuming toxic mushrooms. According to the Generalitat, there are several cases of poisoning every year (34 reported in 2012), occasionally fatal.
Potential disasters can be avoided, however, with some thorough research before you set off, or better still, being accompanied by an experienced boletaire. It’s not often these days that a craze comes along which gets people outside and reconnecting with nature and tradition, and leaving the digital world behind. This is where the true attraction lies; foraging for mushrooms provides an opportunity to disengage and participate in an activity that goes back hundreds of years and has remained untouched by technology. Happy foraging!
SAFETY AND TIPS
The Generalitat has a useful website for boletaires with information on everything from how to gather mushrooms to comprehensive guides on Catalunya’s most common edible and toxic mushroom species. Before heading into the forest in search of mushrooms, bear in mind the responsible approach to respecting them and their environment, as well some essential safety precautions.
1. Always use a wicker basket to collect mushrooms rather than a plastic bag. This allows the spores from the mushrooms to be released back into the forest so they can repopulate it.
2. Unless 100 percent sure that a mushroom is edible, just leave it where it is. Taking a leap of faith could land you in hospital, or worse. Learn to identify a few specific species and look out for them instead of trying to decide whether every mushroom you come across is safe. Take some identification books with you or, ideally, a knowledgeable human guide.
3. Wear protective clothing. Hiking boots, long sleeves and trousers are essential. You will be going off the beaten path to find mushrooms and hence battling with forces of nature, not to mention the temperamental autumn weather.
4. Be mindful of the environment. Don’t litter or light fires, and do not take your car off the road in an effort to reach secluded locations. All common sense, but the increase in people heading out into the forests is beginning to take its toll, so it’s worth being that extra bit careful.
5. Go early. Aim to arrive at your chosen location around sunrise. This way you can almost guarantee that no one else will have followed that trail before you. The lighting is also best in the morning.