Foraging for Dinner in Las Alpujarras Jack Montgomery | Posted: 25 June 2015
Special Walking and Cookery Week at Mairena
Special Walking and Cookery Week at Mairena
Special Walking and Cookery Week at Mairena

Scrabbling about in the sun-kissed Las Alpujarras undergrowth for ingredients for a foraged salad with local jamón serrano to be served as part of dinner later that evening was proving to be extremely informative and a lot of fun.

I proudly held out a prize bunch of aromatic herbs and perky salad leaves freshly plucked from the moist earth.

“¿Bueno, sí?”  I asked Conchi, who carefully picked a few leaves from my hand.

“These, yes,”  she smiled, then nodded at the greater mass of foraged 'food' still gripped between my fingers. “Those, no. Those are dangerous.”

Obviously I needed to clock up more hours at foraging school. But, the risk of poisoning my fellow foragers aside, I was having a great time.

Our marketplace was the bountiful finca belonging to David and Emma Illsley, owners of Las Chimeneas in Mairena where we were learning Moro cookery skills from London chef Tom Ryalls whilst picking up a few local culinary tips from home-grown cooks Soledad and Conchi.

To get to the finca we'd strolled from Mairena along fairy tale woodland tracks through a hypnotic countryside decorated by silver trees, heavy with plump olives as dark as a flamenco dancer's eyes.  It was a countryside so goofy-smile inducing that it seemed almost a cliché of the perfect Andalucian scene.

The finca itself, nestling in a blissfully pretty valley, brimmed with more produce than the average greengrocer – oranges the size of tennis balls, crunchy walnuts, sweet and juicy grapes, chestnuts destined for the roasting pan, tomatoes, olives and the occasional curious specimen that widened the eyes and delighted the mouth... or not, depending on personal taste.

One of these was the medlar, an odd and not particularly friendly-looking fruit which, in days of yore, was colourfully known as the 'open-arse' fruit. Similar to one of those exotic plants found in the Amazon that would have your fingers off if you ventured too near it, the medlar's spiky mouth looked as though it could latch on to the tip of your nose if you were tempted to have a sniff.

Related Holidays

Moorish Flavours of Las Alpujarras

For an authentic taste of southern Spain, join our special gastronomic week at Las Chimeneas which combines walks, visits to local producers, and cookery demonstrations by top chef Tom Ryalls, formerly of London's Moro restaurant.

More about our gastronomic weeks
in the Alpujarras >

Life in an Alpujarran Village

Alternatively, spend a week at the delightful Casa Las Chimeneas to enjoy some fantastic walking in very varied scenery and gain unique insights into Alpujarran culture.

More about our walking holidays
in the Alpujarras >

Popular with the ancient Romans and Greeks, these days it has completely fallen out of flavour, possibly because the fruit is at its best when it's been bletted, left until almost rotten, by which time it's a mushy mouthful. There's no escaping the notion that you're eating rotting fruit when you pop one in the mouth. The medlar tastes a bit cidery with undertones of over ripe fig. I thought it was quite pleasant but from the gurning on some faces around me I guess I was in a minority. The medlar is something of an acquired taste.

As some folks filled bags with knobbly walnuts and others ducked under weeping branches to battle it out with the spiky defences of sweet chestnuts, chef Tom Ryalls emerged from behind a bush clutching a handful of heart-shaped leaves which he enthusiastically indicated we should try.

The subsequent sharp, pungent punch in the taste-buds was completely unexpected. The delicate leaves tasted like vinegar, in fact the flavour they unlocked wasn't dissimilar to munching on a bag of salt and vinegar crisps.

“Wood sorrel,”  Tom announced, looking pleased at my suitably surprised reaction.

The wood sorrel was a revelation and perfect for adding a bit of anarchy to salads.

And so we continued to forage in the warm December sunshine; learning, tasting and building up supplies for dinner whilst David and Emma's labradors put on an exuberant doggie diving display in a small reservoir.

As I picked at chestnut shells I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of well-being laced with a touch of déjà vu. There was something comfortably familiar about being amongst friends whilst harvesting nature's gifts. Basking in a golden glow in the recesses of my mind were distant memories of hay-making in springtime at my aunt's farm in south-west Scotland.

Gathering leaves, herbs and nuts for our dinner invoked a wonderful sense of bonhomie, satisfaction and teamwork (in reality more team play than teamwork). But there was an element to foraging for food in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada that was more profound. It was akin to taking a journey through time, back to the sunny, carefree days of childhood.

The foraged salad turned out to be as delicious as anticipated; savouring food picked by our own hands pumped up the forest fresh flavours. And, thanks to Conchi and Soledad's careful guidance in the field, I didn't poison anyone, so we all made it through to the main course.

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