Falcon Hunting Mushroom Gatherer

Jonathan Harris | September 2014

When he released the falcon it flapped into the blue sky, circling higher and higher until it was just a dot in the heavens. When it spotted the dove below flying across the rolling fields, we could see the falcon tuck in its wings and plunge head first towards the ground. It honed in on the dove, and with a puff of feathers, the hunt was over. The owner of Faúndez Gourmet then returned with his prized falcon and us to his village.

Another hunt was going on in the forests around the tiny village of Rabanales de Aliste, outside of Zamora. In the evenings during the fall, local folk head out to groves of trees to harvest one of the most sought after mushrooms in the world, Boletus edulis. The location of each of these fruitful areas is a carefully guarded secret kept within each family. At night, the Faúndez family drives their truck from house to house, picking up baskets of these wild harvested mushrooms. They then return with the harvest to their amazingly modern facilities back in the village. There they are jarred or cryogenically frozen and distributed to top restaurants across Europe.

Our visit with the Faúndez family is a great example of the amazing transformation Spain has experienced in the last few decades. After awakening from the isolation of the Franco years, the country has surged ahead in cultural and economic prosperity, even taking into account the recent crisis. This rapid change means that there are still striking examples of old Spain living shoulder to shoulder with the modern Spain of bullet trains, smartphones and molecular gastronomy.

In many ways this is a beautiful thing. Because the modern economy burst onto the scene fairly recently, many of the old ways and traditional products did not fade into obscurity in the middle of last century. Instead they are treasured and preserved.

When I leaf through my parents’ photo albums from the 1970s, it is always startling to see how ancient Spain was still a part of daily life, at least in the countryside. A photo of oxen with rabbit pelts draped over their foreheads pulling a rustic cart recalls medieval times, as do the ancient Celtic huts of O Cebreiro, which are basically stone circles covered with a thatch roof. These dwellings were still used as homes and animal shelters just a few decades ago.

At Rabanales de Aliste, where Faúndez is located, my brother Tim and I witnessed old and new Spain living side by side. The townspeople showed us a tiny museum that held tools and clothing of their past – wooden shoes to keep the farmers’ feet out of the manure and mud of the streets, clothing made from woven grass, medieval-looking wood and metal tools. Slowly it dawned on me that these were not relics from centuries ago. In fact, some of the local people had used these tools in their lifetimes. This was a commemoration of a way of life that had barely passed into history.

On our way to lunch we plucked a ripe quince from a farmyard tree, an ancient fruit that predates the apple. At the local restaurant it seemed the whole town was feasting together at rustic wooden tables. We enjoyed roasted lamb cooked over a wood fire and grilled local vegetables, and wild Boletus mushrooms cooked in olive oil. I imagine townspeople from two hundred years ago would feel right at home.

The Boletus mushrooms we ate were meaty with an enticing truffle flavor, and we could see why chefs across the world seek out this delicacy. And this is where the magic of modern Spain comes into the picture. After lunch we crossed the cobblestone street to the modern Faúndez Gourmet facility. There the workers clean, sort and prepare the wild mushrooms. In one corner sat a gleaming stainless steel machine that uses liquid nitrogen to flash freeze the precious mushrooms in perfect condition. Then they are bagged and shipped by frozen truck or by airplane to restaurants in France, Germany and beyond.

Within one day we made an astonishing journey from the medieval to the modern! Foragers venture into an ancient forest to seek out a treasured mushroom, just as their families have for countless generations. Hours later it is spirited away by flying machines to distant nations. 

This partnership between ancient and modern Spain should be celebrated. Proud Spanish farmers and townspeople now have a way to share their heritage with the rest of the world, and at the same time preserve the traditions and way of life that might otherwise be lost. We are honored to be part this effort, and we thank you for supporting all of the families and communities in Spain who create exceptional products like the falcon hunters’ mushrooms.