Mushroom. Juan manuel Sanz/©ICEX
Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies or the visible part of various fungi of different species which grow on the soil or on a food source, in wooded areas and often in damp, dark places. Since mushrooms do not contain chlorophyll, in order to survive, they need to be located on decomposing organic matter, to act as parasites on other living beings or to live in symbiosis with another species. They reproduce by spores.
Not all mushroom species are edible, and some are toxic. Generally speaking, they comprise a cap, the widest part which may be of different shapes and colors depending on the species, and a stem to hold it up. The inside of the cap, called the hymenium, may be smooth, tubular or laminated and there may be a ring beneath the cap. The underground part around the base of the stem is called the volva. The edible parts are the cap and, in some species, also the stem. Colors vary widely and flavors are usually very pleasant, with aromatic substances and, in some species, similar to meat.
The best time to pick mushrooms is during fall, although there are certain species to be found all year round. Late summer is when most mushrooms appear, and their numbers and quality increase as winter approaches. Rainfall encourages their growth in woodland and meadows.
Mushrooms were well-known by the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Celts who used them as food and for medicinal purposes. Controlled cultivation began in the 17th century in France, as previously they had just been gathered from the woods.
In Spain, about 2,000 species are to be found, although the areas with the greatest diversity are Aragón, Asturias, Castile-Leon, Catalonia, Galicia, Navarra, Basque Country and Madrid. These are also the areas with the greatest tradition for mushrooming. The popular names of mushrooms sometimes vary from one region to another.
Some species are considered specially delectable amongst Spanish mushroom-lovers: Boletus Edulis, also known as cep (in Catalonia), with white flesh and an intense, characteristic smell with hints of walnut; Calocybe Gambosa, or St. George's Mushroom, highly regarded in the Basque Country where it is known as Perretxiko, with compact, white flesh and a pleasant smell and taste of fresh flour; Amanita Cesárea or Caesar's Mushroom, which has an orange-red cap and white flesh with yellow shading, as well as a very pleasant aroma and flavor.
Other important species are Marasmius oreades, also known as the fairy ring mushroom, a small mushroom sought out for its flavor, which has a small, cream or hazelnut-colored cap; the Lepiota procera or parasol mushroom with white flesh and a pleasant hazelnut flavor, usually found in summer and fall; the Agaricus or button mushroom of which there are several types, including the white wild agaricus and the cultivated agaricus with flakes on the cap and a pleasant flavor and aroma, which vegetates from mid-summer to mid-fall; the Cantharellus cibarius, or chanterelle, with its trumpet shape and wavy edges, yellow, pungent flesh and a pleasant, delicate aroma, which appears in early fall. The Lactarius deliciosus, Saffron Milkcap or Rovellón (in Catalonia) has a convex cap, orange in color with green stains. The flesh is yellow or orange and fragile with a sweet, slightly acrid flavor and an aroma of resin and fruits. It appears as from early fall and is one of the most popular and easy-to-recognize mushrooms, often reaching markets in Spain during the season. The Morchella conica or morel has the shape of a natural sponge, with honeycomb-like pits. The flesh is white and the flavor and aroma are delicate and pleasant. Russula cyanoxantha, or Charcoal Burner, is one of the most tasty of mushrooms. Its flesh is white or pink, with a mild flavor and a smell reminiscent of hazelnuts.
There are many mycological associations in Spain that carry out activities relating to the world of mushrooms. Mushrooming is a hobby that rouses great excitement in many parts of Spain.
Mushrooms are highly regarded and during the season often feature on restaurant menus as well as in homes. They can be consumed raw or cooked in different ways - fried, grilled, sautéed with garlic, baked and in many dishes such as stews, soups, rice with mushrooms, etc. They are a real gift from nature for gourmet palates.