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Island Ecology

Island Ecology

by José P Ribas

The Magic Of Mushrooms

Part One


Ibiza Ecology

Hunting for a mushroom feast is a tradition and a real madness for all of us, especially if it is a good year for them.

"Pebrás" ("pebrasus" when there's lots) is the local name for a type of edible fungus that grows on the Island in autumn.

This mushroom of the "Lactarius" family, an autochthonous, very tasty variety of the "Lactarius sanguifluus," or "saffron milk cup" as it is known in English, is practically the only wild mushroom that most of the locals know can be eaten and look for intensively.

They form part of some of our best traditional menus and ancestral recipes which have got to be in the proper "Arros i frite de matanses" (the rice dish that we always cook and serve when we kill the pig and serve up the meat, ribs, liver, kidneys and tongue that is fried all together and served as the main course for this event).

It is also much sought after for Christmas and later on, dried or frozen, for special occasions, such as on village Saint's days, etc.

Going to the forest to look for mushrooms, (Anar a buscar "pebrasus", torrar "sobrasada" i "butifarró" i beure vi pagés), and barbecuing them, together with the, very fresh, just made "sobrasada" and "butifarró" and plenty of the young local wine, is one of the most popular and anticipated activities for locals at this time of the year, from the middle of October till Christmas or the first weeks of January at the most, before it gets too cold.

At least one day out in the forest is spent by real crowds, especially at weekends, with whole families, granddads and children included, groups of young friends, working pals, peasants, people from all the villages and from Ibiza Town, etc. For a lot of them, this is the only time and the only reason to go walking into the thick forest, running up and down hills.

Before, we had to walk for about two hours, from San Antonio up to the areas where they used to grow, by "Cala Salada," "Corona," or "Buscastell," in the forest up the hills. Three or four happy hours would be spent looking up and down from one place to another. If we found enough of them in less time - when we had what we needed for the barbecue and some more to take back - we had lunch. Normally from six to ten of the freshest and tenderest "pebrasus" each, briefly done on the charcoal, with a bit of salt and a drop of olive oil (the most tasty way to be eaten with a good piece of grilled "sobrasada" in between two thick slices of "pa pagés" (the local bread). And maybe a couple of oranges afterwards, without the wine in those days (too much extra weight to carry). After recovering our strength, it was two hours or more for the walk back with "un sanayó ple de pebrasus" - a bag full of mushrooms, as we always used to say, even if it was only half full. It was for me an enjoyable, but also a very hard day. I slept well those nights.

Now, with the car, it takes ten minutes to get there, with all the family, tables and chairs, radio and the mobile phone (in case they get lost in the forest, they say). As there are new roads all over the place, they keep using the car to drive to the next hill for a quick look and if there is nothing there, it's back to the car to try somewhere else. I often think that wheels are the worst enemy of the "pebrasus".

The effect of this crowd moving into the forest, without much control, produces a very severe ecological impact, especially for such a delicate being as mushrooms. Some don't even know what they are looking for. They can't tell the difference between the different kinds of mushrooms, so they pick up all they see and throw them back as soon as they find out they are not what they were looking for. Even if they are edible with a good flavour, they ignore them, or just step on them, because they are not easy to be seen, destroying whatever gets in their way.

There is another group of people that also goes to the forest, to find this very much wanted, specific and expensive mushroom, though they also know three or four other ones ("Clitocibe costata", in Ibicenco "esteperol," "Agaricus campestris," "xampinyo" (Field mushroom), "Pleurotus eryngii," "girgola de fel-la," "Gomphidius rutilus," "pebras moru" (Peg top) that, if they are found, are picked up and taken home to be eaten, but nobody will go on purpose to look for these last ones, or, let's say, not yet.

These groups of people always go one by one, two or three of the best and most discreet friends together at the most. Professional mushroom hunters (we will need a couple of hounds, or a real "Apache red skin" to follow them in the forest), is formed by local farmers born by or in their own forest where they have learned from their ancestors exactly where and when to find them, though they keep it as a valuable secret. All they have to do is to be there before somebody else does it, year after year. They know and respect the environment even they don't know much about most of the varieties of fungus that they have in the forest and can be eaten, or the real nature of them. They do not seem to be interested in any other one either.

These people used to come to sell them in the shops down town. The "pebrasus" were threaded through the stem, strung with a long, thin rosemary branch, six to twelve depending on the size, to be sold by the branch, that could be hung and dried, to be eaten later.

Now, quite a few people go to their houses to see if there are any for sale. Some gourmets and restaurant owners even book as many kilos as possible for the next mushroom season. The price is always related to the availability, for instance this year the "pebrasus" from Ibiza are priceless and there are none in the market. The ones we can find for sale are another variety of lactarius - "Lactarius deliciosus" - and come from the Mediterranean side of Mainland Spain, (Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante, Albacete) at about fifteen euros, (2,500 pesetas) per kilo, the local ones will normally double this price.

The difference in the ecological impact for the environment between the two groups is obviously evident. If you follow the first group, it will be no problem at all to find out where they have been, empty bottles and plastic bags, broken branches, unnecessarily pulled up plants, removed moss and grass, kicked and stepped over toadstools all the way along. It is an easy track to follow, but you can still find quite a few of the mushrooms that we are looking for that they missed. They kill and spoil more then they pick up, especially little ones.

If you follow someone of the second group, you will hardly see any changes to the forest and its floor, but where they have been no "pebrasus" at all will be found, even small ones, because they say that "is better a small one for us today, then a big one tomorrow for someone else".

Not that I have anything at all against the people going into the forest and spending a good healthy day out there. Probably it would be better if they went more often, as much as I want to keep doing it myself, and keep finding, as long as possible, this delicious gift of Nature. But I'm afraid that things will have to change a lot for it to happen; we all have to learn more about it and adapt our habits and attitudes towards its preservation.

The mushroom is the "carpophores" (the fruit body of a "plant") with its "spores" (seeds) inside of them, in its "gills" or "tubes", and they are very fragile beings; about 80-85% of them is water. They need the rain, high humidity and the temperature is best from eight to twenty degrees centigrade for them to grow properly. When it is dry and hot, like this season and the past few years, very few grow and if they don't get picked up in the first days, very soon they are full of worms, because being so hot (almost thirty the last week of October) there are a lot of flies and insects that put their eggs in them, only very few go through all the process to release the spores, so there is very little "micelle" (what can be considered as the "body of the plant" it is formed by the spores) being form in the forest humus, therefore, it will be far less mushrooms growing in this area, some forest lose completely its production for years, until we have a very rainy one.

Mushrooms are not vegetal. They can't process the solar radiation to produce chlorophyll and they need to feed themselves with organic matter, as animals do. In this particular case, the "Lactarius" are symbiotic fungus which means that they live in association, in symbiosis with a proper plant, in this case, the "Lactarius sanguifluus" grows and live in symbiosis with the roots of the local pine-tree, "Pinus halepensis". When these trees get cut, as is happening every day, building new roads, complexes and houses in the forest, they also finish for ever with the mushrooms.

We will continue looking for mushrooms next week, if there are any left and some part of the forest is open and free for us to go to.

Sorry! In two weeks, I mean. (Art comes first).

The Good News

A friend of mine, who is a sailor (he prefers not to mention his name), takes people out sailing and fishing into the open sea on his own boat. He has told me that he has spotted three very big whales swimming around the same area (about twenty or twenty five miles from Ibiza's coast towards Cabrera) for the past few weeks. They don't leave the area and come very close to the boat, almost within touching distance. This situation hasn't been seen in many years around our island.

Last time I saw him he said he was going to take his video camera to film them, so maybe we can recognise which type of whales they are. It will be interesting to find out.

It is lovely to make their acquaintance.

José P Ribas