Firstly, an admission, I don’t actually hunt Hedgehogs. What I do hunt for are the members of the Hydnum family of fungi. They are related to Chanterelles, but are less rich in flavour, with a robust texture, which means a jolly good free meal.
Hedgehogs or ‘Hedgies’ as we call them, start to appear in October/November and they are a very useful addition to the menu. They tend to grow in a loose sort of ring around various types of trees and can be easily missed by fungi hunting novices. All the more for us.
The ancient woods here in central Galicia are an interesting mix of oak trees, huge old pine trees that are becoming less common each year, not due so much to felling, but high winds. There’ll be an odd sweet chestnut, but in general, oak is the king. Chestnut plantations are also common, but they are not deliberately mixed with other types of tree.
Once the oak leaves fall, in December, the ‘hedgies’ disappear. You can still encounter them on an ancient pathway, but hidden treasures are few and far between.
The old camino trails, many of which go back to the Roman occupation, are a rich source of fungi; the spores having been spread by feet or hooves and you never know what you may encounter.
Hedgehogs (hydnum repandum) are a beautiful apricot colour and they start small, hiding under pine needles, or last year’s oak mast. We start looking for them in October and they are very tiny, like apricot pinheads, with long, pure white fibrous stems.
At their best, they can be a handspan in size and after cheering and whooping with joy, we circle the tree, digging down a little to cut the fungi off from the mycelium.
Right then – early November, or thereabouts, we find a great range of fungi. There are two excellent types of Russula, the Charcoal Burner,(Xerampelina) which is deep variegated purple and the less common, Viriscens. In June/July the green and white viriscens is very common and excellent to eat. A good-sized viriscens smells a little of cheese and if picked early in the day, is free of worms.
The fungus that we are really hoping to find is the boletus edulis, or perhaps its cousin the aereus. The pure, white spongy spores, a velvety cap and bulbous stem, are a beautiful sight. I stand there, transfixed by the sheer gorgeousness of the mushroom and take a first sniff of the wonderful, rich, heady scent.
It can become confusing, following a friend with a basketful, as everywhere smells of Ceps, as they are also known and I keep stopping and looking around to find those others, only to curse, remembering that they are in front of me, being carried by my husband or friend. It’s so frustrating!
I have learned to recognise the Boletus Luridiformis, which is a large, solid cep-like fungi. It has a delightful dark-brown velvety cap, a thick stem, with a red net-like pattern, bright red spongy pores and they are heavy in the hand. On cutting, the flesh immediately turns bright blue – a good sign, as this means that you aren’t trying to eat a rarer, poisonous cousin.
You can’t eat Luridiformis raw, but the blue colour disappears when it is cooked and whilst it can cause some gastric upsets, it’s an excellent fungus.
Field mushrooms themselves, are the size of dinner plates. They don’t appear up here until November and they are a welcome sight and they grow alongside the fairy ring champignons and a nice, sunny November day is perfect for mushroom picking.
This year, I have found a specimen of Chicken-of-the-woods. I made sure that it is growing on an old oak tree stump and I’ve sampled it a few times and yes, it really does taste of chicken. Amazing.