Mushroom picking experience in the Sierra of Madrid
In Spain a common sight in the country is people walking along the side of the road or through the forest looking for mushrooms. The mushroom pickers have a wicker basket, comfortable hiking boots and seem to take pleasure in rainy weather.
I have always been a little nervous about the mushroom picking experience as I have no idea which mushrooms are edible and which are toxic. My husband talks about taking the family mushroom picking—but as I am a little concerned about accidentally picking the wrong mushroom and poisoning our entire family, and I have never encouraged his enthusiasm.
Autumn is the perfect season for wild mushrooms—especially a wet autumn like we have been having this year. As wild mushrooms are a big thing on most menus this time of year, and are also found in the local markets, many people want to learn how to find their own wild mushrooms and how to cook them. A large culture of mycological tourism is available throughout Spain.
When the opportunity came up to take a guided tour offered by Navalmedio through the Sierra de Guadarrama National Park in Cercedilla near Madrid I jumped at the chance. With a botanist guiding us in our trek we would not only learn about the mushrooms in the area, but wouldn’t inadvertently pick one that would cause us harm.
The Navalmedio offers numerous different activities within the Sierra de Guadarrama National Park to help introduce people to nature—from horseback riding, to walking tours to snowshoeing in the winter. And of course guided mushroom tours. We opted for the introductory tour.
The mushroom picking excursion is with a guided biologist who walks with you through the forest and explains the variety of mushrooms that you find, how to distinguish one from another and which are edible and which aren’t.
Guided mushroom picking tour
At 9:30 a.m. sharp we showed up in a drizzling rain and joined up with a group of about 15 others hardy people to set off to find mushrooms. My 10-year old son, Oliver, was especially excited about his chance of looking for mushrooms. To him it was a bit like a treasure hunt (the excitement might have also had something to do with the fact that we let him take the day off of school to join us, but we won’t say that too loud in case his teachers find out!).
Our guide, Isabel, is someone who obviously loves the outdoors and who knows about her surroundings.
Isabel made sure that we all had the appropriate gear—wicker baskets that didn’t have paper or cardboard covering the bottom, and a knife for cutting edible mushrooms when we found one. The baskets have to have holes so that as when you have mushrooms in your basket you are actually helping the spores spread.
Isabel made it clear that we shouldn’t distinguish mushrooms between “good and bad”, but rather between “edible and inedible” as all the mushrooms are good for a healthy forest.
In the Guardarrama range of mountains, where we were picking, there are approximately 200 species of mushrooms but of those 200 mushrooms there are only roughly 10-20% that are edible. Isabel said if we came with the idea that our baskets would be brimming with mushrooms in the first ½-hour we were going to be disappointed. We would find plenty of mushrooms, but very few of them would we be able to take home.
Isabel said that mushroom pickers “tend to be like fishermen” they like to tell stories of their great catches, or in the case of picking mushrooms of the days that they bring home baskets overflowing. However, she added “It is rare to have a day when you bring home a lot of mushrooms.”
One reason is that in a healthy forest there are numerous different species of mushrooms growing, so you will find many non-edible mushrooms for every mushroom you can eat. (remember only 10%-20% of mushrooms are edible) If you are in a place where there is only one type of mushroom that is a bad thing as there is an unbalance in the ecosystem.
After giving us some of this basic information about mushrooms we set off in search of them in the forest. I thought it would be more difficult to find them, but once you started looking the forest floor was covered in mushrooms—but as Isabel had warned us, most were inedible.
The drizzling rain soon turned into a light mist, and later on the sun even poked out. It was a gorgeous fall day to be walking through the forest. We headed up a small ravine next to a mossy creek, the oak trees were turning orange and everything was fresh and beautiful. Even if we didn’t find one mushroom the day would have been a success simply because we were out in this gorgeous setting.
Myths and Legends of mushroom picking
With each mushroom found Isabel would take the time to explain the properties, which family the mushroom was from and what feature this had that distinguished it from others.
Isabel explained that all the legends, stories, myths and theories about how to know if a mushroom was toxic or not, are false. And if the only thing we learned during this guided tour was that everything we thought we knew up to this point in our lives about mushroom hunting was false and we had to start from scratch, then we were making progress.
For example: Have you ever heard the theory that all red mushrooms are toxic? False. Have you heard that if you put mushrooms on a piece of paper and the paper turns black the mushroom is toxic? False. Have you heard that all white mushrooms are safe to eat? False. Have you heard that all poisonous mushrooms have a pointed cap? False.
The only tried and true way to know if a mushroom is edible or toxic is to have full knowledge of that individual mushroom.
Mushrooms can NOT be determined simply by looking at a photo. You must be able to see the whole mushroom, look underneath the cap, see if the stalk is woody or firm, and feel the texture of the gills and the width of each. All of these defining features are things that must be seen on each individual mushroom.
She emphasized that every year there are deaths from people who eat mushrooms which are poisonous.
As we were almost finished and heading back to the cars we actually found a small group of 4 edible mushrooms, which my son happily cut and put into our basket.
The two things I came away with from the morning of picking were:
I need to learn more before I head out on my own to join the ranks of the mushroom pickers.
Mushroom picking is an excellent family activity. It teaches old and young alike that in an age where many think instant gratification is the norm, being patient and searching is worth the effort. And sometimes the results actually come not from “the prize” but the process of the activity. The getting out into nature and enjoying the day with your family walking through a beautiful setting is a memory that will stay with you for the rest of your life, which will give you more joy than the few mushrooms that you will eat that evening for dinner.
I also came away with a beautiful memory to share for a long time to come with my husband and son and our friends.
If you are in or near Madrid and are looking for an activity to do in nature, I highly recommend taking the time to head to the Parque Nacional de Guadarrama and getting this educational, highly informative and fun activity through the Navalmedio. If you happen to come during a time of year when there are no mushrooms (summer for example) Navalmedio offers numerous other activities that take you into nature in Spain that will keep you active and in the outdoors. The tours are offered in English.
Telephone: (34) 918 523 019