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Celebrating mushrooms: seasonal eating can be cultural

It’s wild mushroom season in Spain and one of those times of year I notice my foreignness, or lack of real food culture.

I’ve been through 5 autumns here now, but every year at this time, I’m freshly assaulted with one step inside the boqueria- Barcelona’s biggest outdoor food market- by the sudden appearance of rows and rows of edible fungi: rovellons, rossinyols, botons, ceps, camagrocs, pintells, trompete de la mort.

This past month I’ve been buying a bagful every week- 3 euros for a kilo of pieces of rovellons- and we’re putting them in everything: pasta sauce, paella or simply fried with egg (my husband’s speciality).

Last night, eating our mushroom and tofu risotto, I was trying to think about when I even ate mushrooms growing up in the U.S. All I could remember was ordering them on a Round Table pizza and I am very skeptical that those cardboard-flavored mushrooms are actually part of the fungi family.

As I’ve gotten older and changed my class of restaurant, I’ve become familiar with portabello and shiitake varieties, but mushrooms have never been become a regular ingredient in my kitchen. Until now.

Mushroom hunting as national sport

I first started to notice something was different here the fall I met my future mother-in-law. She had been out hunting ceps (the catalon name for porcini mushrooms) and was preparing them with garlic for lunch. I was a bit skeptical; I’d grown up hearing that eating wild mushrooms could be fatal.

The mushrooms were the best I’d ever had- full of flavor and delicious on their own- and I survived the meal. It turns out she goes fungi hunting every fall and spring (the twin wild mushroom seasons in Catalonia), along with so many other Catalons I’ve met.

Last spring, a bearded man on a motorcycle approached me in front of my apartment building and asked if I liked mushrooms. In our “bohemian” neighborhood it’s not uncommon to hear offers of “chocolate” (hash) so I thought about ignoring him, until I looked down and saw his panniers overflowing with ceps. I took another look at his face and recognized our usually rather preppy architect neighbor.

Hunting fungi

It seems no one is immune to fungi fever and it’s not just limited to Catalonia. Last month we visited my husband’s ailing grandfather in Extremadura, a region of Spain bordering Portugal, and ended up on a mushroom hunt with my husband’s cousins (I shot a video of our excursion).

I was surprised that the one leading the hunt knew so much about fungi. I had previously stereotyped him as a young twenty-something interested in fast cars, but he showed us the route where his mother-in-law had had luck earlier in the week and explained how the recent rains and humidity meant a bountiful season.

We found plenty of miniature mushrooms, too small or too toxic to pick, and then ended up sidetracked by a tree overflowing with chestnuts: another seasonal fruit.

I’d never eaten a chestnut before coming to Spain, but since my arrival I’ve tried them as a snack, main course and dessert. They show up often in fall dishes because historically, before potatoes and corn were introduced to Europe, chestnuts were a staple food.

The natural rhythm of the culinary calendar

Mushroom season will end soon, but it will be replaced by yet another culinary episode. One of my favorites is the wild asparagus in the spring, but right now, I’m seeing baked boniato’s (sweet potato) and roasted chestnuts on street corners (as well as our kitchen and that of my mother-in-law who uses them as a potato substitute). And at the boqueria the winter greens (spinach and kale) and late autumn fruits (oranges and mandarins) are easing out the last of the grapes and persimmons.

I’m beginning to get a feeling for when to expect different fruits and vegetables to be in season, and unlike my rather unsuccessful attempts in the U.S. to memorize seasonal food charts, my education here is much more organic.

Even if I were to skip the ubiquitous markets for a supermarket, it would be difficult not to notice the change in food seasons, because seasonal eating in Spain isn’t so much scientific as cultural. Foods are celebrated with the changing of the seasons with town festivals.

In wintertime, there’s an event dedicated to an onion. My first calçotada- a celebration of the calçot, a giant green scallion- was an informal gathering with my husband’s college friends. We met up at a picnic spot and grilled the nearly 2 foot scallions on the barbecue.

Skeptical that onions could become the bulk of a meal, I let his friends show me how to dip them in the Romesco sauce and then lower them into my mouth eating nearly all except the driest leafy part. After about 15 or so, I was satisfied and thoroughly enjoying the ritual.

Chestnuts are a symbol of fall (season: October-December) and the main attraction at the annual castanyadas: an event that also features autumn foods like sweet potatoes and sweet potato, or almond, based desserts called panellets (marzipan-like sweets that my mother-in-law makes from scratch).

Re-setting our culinary clocks

I suppose in most countries, you can pick up on the rhythm of the culinary seasons if you shop at farmers markets. Last winter in Australia, I shot my friend Katrina at Melbourne’s Old Vic market picking through the mostly local, and seasonal, produce,, explaining how she uses the market to set her seasonal clock.

As the number of farmer’s markets grows, perhaps more of us will start to experiment with changing our diet with the calendar, but I fear it will take more than just farmer’s markets to convince the majority of us that foods like chestnuts or onions can be the featured part of a meal, that mushrooms can be eaten for every meal or that there are enough recipes for root vegetables (a few years ago, I shot my friend, and personal chef, Carlin cooking a few different recipes for potatoes: steamed Japanese sweet potatoes and sauteed fingerling, Ruby Red and Purple Beauty).

Or maybe I’m wrong and it simply takes an abundance of raw ingredients to motivate us to try new recipes. As for me, I don’t need any extra motivation: seasonal cooking has become embedded in my life. This weekend, we went to my brother-in-law’s for lunch. The menu: a roast with potatoes, carrots and yes, mushrooms (and I asked, they were rossinyols).