Bilbao was a new entry point for us to Spain. We packed our little van and departed early one morning for the Rosslare to Bilbao ferry. We then spent 27 hours on a lively sea. It’s very relaxing once you find your feet, as there’s not much to do apart from read a book, which is a good thing after the stress of packing up and leaving. We arrived in Bilbao to extreme wind and grey sky and then it began to rain, horror of horrors!
Our plans were very open so instead of exploring the city, we headed a little south, up in the hills to Soria, where the sky was blue and the sun was shining. We stayed in Vinuesa, a small village in the Sierra de Urbion, famous for pine forests and mycology. It’s very quiet; there are two shops and a handful of bar-restaurants that cater for the locals and sporadic tourists. There is skiing in winter, mountain climbing all year and mushroom picking in the autumn. We hit the mushroom time of year and our friends took us off up into the forest to find some. We walked for miles before we found our mushroom eyes but then they started to pop up everywhere. We learnt so much: Which mushroom likes to grow next to which plant and more importantly which were edible and which were poisonous? We found an amazing bright orange mushroom, which I would have run a mile from, but our friends were very excited about. It was a prized Oranje Aminita Caesara, which apparently was Caesar’s favourite mushroom and fetches €100kg. We went home with a basket filled with the above Oranjes, boletus edulis (porcini) and thistle setas – little brown babies, and made ourselves a feast of marinated mushrooms and risotto.
The next day we clambered up, or should I say scrambled, whichever way, it was up, to the Laguna Negra, which is a beautiful glacial lake on top of the mountains. Once up, there is an amazing undulating plateau strewn with enormous glacial rocks, waterfalls, underground streams, wild pigs, deer, flowers and bees.
We moved on from Vinuesa, through hills and plateaus where acres of sunflowers were drying in the sunshine and butterscotch-coloured cows were grazing. Up over the mountains into the Sierra de Gredas, where we found Arenas de San Pedro, a village surrounded with oak and chestnut forests. The chestnuts are just ripening and we filled our pockets with shiny brown chestnuts.
Driving down from Arenas de San Pedro, the landscape changes, the pines peter out and the trees become olive trees and it looks very Mediterranean. It’s also warming up. Or hot as Con would put it.
Right now we’re in Merida and today’s plan is to continue south towards Cadiz.
It’s a wonderful drive, lovely people and places, highly recommended, a very different Spain from the coasts.
Here’s a recipe that I made with the last of our mushrooms. There are only five ingredients apart from the pasta and Parmesan. Use the most interesting selection of mushrooms that you can find.
Wild Mushroom and Tomato Linguine
• 250g mushrooms
• 1-2 large ripe tomatoes
• 100mls extra virgin olive oil
• 25g butter
• 1-2 cloves garlic
• 250g linguine, spaghetti or tagliatelle
• Parmesan cheese to serve
Wipe the mushrooms clean and slice thinly.
Put a frying pan on to the heat, add 25 mls olive oil and the butter. When the butter froths up, add the mushrooms. Cook on a high heat for a couple of minutes, then reduce the heat a little. Cook until the mushrooms have melted down, then season with a little salt and cracked black pepper. Tip the mushrooms onto a plate and put them to one side. Don’t wash the pan.
Put a large pot of water on to boil. With a sharp knife remove the core at the top of the tomatoes and score a cross on the bottom. When the water boils, drop the tomatoes in, then count to twenty. Take the tomatoes out of the pot with a slotted spoon or spatula and slip them into a bowlful of cold water to cool.
Return the water to the boil and season with a tablespoon of salt. Add the pasta and give a few stirs to loosen it. Set the timer according to the time on the packet.
Drain the tomatoes, remove the skins, cut in half and gently squeeze out any excess seeds – these would only make the sauce watery. Dice the tomato and season with a little salt.
Peel and thinly slice the garlic. Put the pan that was used to cook the mushrooms back on the heat. Add the olive oil and garlic, heat gently together for a couple of minutes, just a soft sizzle, don’t let them burn. Add the diced tomatoes then increase the heat. Cook until bubbling. Stir in the cooked mushrooms then let the sauce gently simmer. Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper if needed.
Drain the pasta. Reserve a little of the cooking water. Toss the pasta with the sauce – add a little cooking water if it’s too dry.
Serve with a swirl of olive oil and some grated Parmesan.
Lettercollum Kitchen Project,