Fungi are plentiful in the forests of the western Rif Mountains, where wild ingredients have been a culinary staple since long before foraging became a buzzword among foodies.
Flashing a knowing smile, my guide â€¨Mohammed Elafia ducked under a low branch, releasing a shower of raindrops onto the peaked cowl of his woolen djellaba. Then he disappeared through a tangled lattice of shrubs and bramble into the cork forest. The sky above was a whorl of charcoals and pearl grays, and the morning air here, 500 meters up in Moroccoâ€™s Rif Mountains, was chilly. Tender ferns sprouted from the loam, beards of moss dangled from twigs, and delicate purple and red flowers added pinpricks of spring color.
Hearing Mohammedâ€™s son Abdelghani call my name, I scrambled down the wet slope until I spotted him under a cork tree, crawling on his hands and knees toward a chanterelle protruding from sodden leaf litter and acorn shells. Sweeping the base clear with his fingers, he cut around the stem with a paring knife and handed me the mushroom, smooth and a deep golden-yellow. Before placing it in my wicker basket, I inhaled the chanterelleâ€™s pronounced fruity smell and caught strong notes of apricot. Abdelghani and I dug out another dozen or so fungi before moving on in slow pursuit, looking for the dull glint of gold among the woody browns of the forest floor.
As Africaâ€™s northernmost range, the Rif forms an almost impenetrable arc along Moroccoâ€™s Mediterranean coast, stretching from Cape Spartel, at the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, some 350 kilometers east toward the Algerian border. But it really starts about two hours southeast of Tangier, at Chefchaouen, where the mountains rise up dramatically. Theâ€¨Rif was once called bled es-siba (â€śland of lawless-â€¨nessâ€ť). Tamer now, the region remains the chief supplier of hashish to Europe. But, little known to most peopleâ€”including many Moroccansâ€”â€¨the forests of the Rif also conceal 35 varieties of edible wild mushrooms.
Mohammed and his sons arenâ€™t guides in the traditional tourism sense. They know the forests intimately because they graze the familyâ€™s goats there. And they know their mushrooms, too. Like many other young men in the nearby hamlets, when Abdelghani or his brothers are out with their flock, they sometimes pick up mushrooms to sell to a middleman who sends them on to Casablanca. Chanterelles, porcini, and black trumpets are the easiest to sell, along with valuable matsutake found in the cedar forests higher in the mountains. Some of theseâ€¨are destined for restaurants in Moroccoâ€™s largest cities, others for European markets such as La Boqueria in Barcelona, where I live.
A few years ago, while I was working on a Moroccan cookbook, my wife, our two young daughters, and I stayed at Auberge Dardara, a guesthouse and restaurant near Chefchaouen. Joined by the owner, Jaber Elhabibi, and a handful of Moroccan guests from Casablanca and Rabat, we gathered mushrooms with Mohammed and another of his sons, Nafia. In just a few hours we filled our baskets with several varieties, including a type of coral fungus the size of a cauliflower. That visit whetted my appetite, and I had returned to forage during peak season. â€śYou can find mushrooms here all the time,â€ť Mohammed had told me, â€śbut March is the best.â€ť
I enjoy the thrill of the hunt, of venturing into the deepest reaches of the forest in search of wild fungi, but I love the spoils of the effort even more. On this return trip, I had also come to eat. Once Mohammed, Abdelghani, and I had collected two kilos or so of chanterelles and some porcini with bright yellow undercaps, the three of us headed back up the hill to the road. It wasnâ€™t a great haul, but it was enough for a couple of meals.
Back at the Auberge Dardara, I took off my wet boots and sat down in the dining room for lunch. As I warmed up beside the flickering fire, I nibbled on wrinkled black olives and hunks of leavened bread with a crust coated in wheat chaffing. Soon came small dishes of chilled cooked carrots seasoned with cumin and paprika, a mash of roasted eggplant and red peppers called zaalouk, and fresh goat cheeseâ€”blended with olive oil, garlic, and oreganoâ€”that was light as mousse. These were followed by bessara, a simple, creamy purĂ©ed soup of dried fava â€¨beans. When I finished the bowl, I went into the â€¨kitchen to watch the chef, Mustapha Zaizoun, prepare the main course, a mushroom omelet.
Mustapha is mute, so the kitchen was almost silent as he used hand signs to give instructions to his two assistants. He thinly sliced some chanterelles, crushed cloves of garlic under the heel of his hand, and then sautĂ©ed both with fresh bay leaves. After whisking eggs (from a neighboring farm) with a generous pinch of cumin, he poured them into a skillet. Once they had set, he arranged the mushrooms and garlic on the eggs and added minced parsley and a sprig of rosemary.
A few moments later, Mustapha slid the omelet onto a plate and handed me a fork and knife. I took a bite. The mushrooms were delightfully toothsome, and as for the eggs, nothing better absorbs the flavors of the hills. Before I could eat more, though, Fatima, Mustaphaâ€™s assistant, snatched up the plate and insisted I go to the dining room and eat it properly.
As I lingered over a dessert of silken â€¨goatâ€™s-milk yogurt topped with heather honey, Dardaraâ€™s owner, Jaber, joined me at the table for tea. Born and raised in Tangier, Jaber had returned to this area, where he had spent childhood vacations visiting his grandparents, and opened Dardara in 2000. Quiet and thoughtful, he wears frameless, square-lensed glasses, a thick beard, and a generous mustache that could be twisted into handlebars.
Before Jaber had finished his tea, we could see that the clouds had dissipated somewhat, and the hills rising above the auberge shone green in the afternoon light. â€śThere is a forest of Aleppo pine trees where we might find Amanita caesarea,â€ť he said. Caesarâ€™s mushroom is one of the few edible amanitas and one of the most sought-after varieties in the forest. He would show me himself. He pulled a djellaba over his fleece vest, and I put on my wet boots.
Despite the momentary lull, heavy drops of rain splattered the windshield of Jaberâ€™s car as we climbed 300 meters higher than the cork forest I had explored with Mohammed that morning. Even though it was the end of March, snow covered the tops of nearby hills. Across the valley, in a fading patch of sunlight, the white-and-blue-hued town of Chefchaouen huddled under a pair of twin mountain peaks.
Jaber pulled off the road and parked under a sheltering canopy of high-branching pine trees. We stepped out onto a springy carpet of pine needles and started looking immediately for the smooth reddish-orange caps of Amanita caesarea. As we did, Jaber identified the surrounding plants and shrubs and explained their numerous medicinal and culinary uses. His profound knowledge of the natural history of the region is matched by his deep feelings for it.
â€śIn rural life, attachment to the land is key,â€ť he said softly. â€śIt is stronger when you go back to your ancestral land. The desire is stronger to preserve, to protect, to belong.â€ť This is expressed in Jaberâ€™s work with the international Slow Food movement and his commitment to using local productsâ€”honey collected from a cork hive in the forest, herbs gathered in the hills around Dardaraâ€”at the auberge. The local landscape has always been an important part of the Rifian larder. Indeed, long before foraging became fashionable among foodies from San Francisco to San SebastiĂˇn and Sydney, rural Moroccans were gathering what grows wild around themâ€”for nourishment, medicine, and the variety of flavors.
Jaber took off his glasses and wiped away a misting of rain. The light was beginning to fade, muting the colors of the forest floor. A long-legged buzzard lifted off heavily from an overhead branch as we made our way back to the car. It had rained steadily for more than a week. A few days of sun, Jaber said, setting the empty basket in the trunk, and the amanitas would burst up through the needles. â€śWhen dealing with the weather, you must be patient.â€ť
The porcini were a bit spongy, Mustapha indicated with his hands that evening when I was back in the kitchen watching him cook. He shrugged and proceeded to show me the best way to use mushrooms in this condition. He sautĂ©ed them quickly in hot olive oil with crushed garlic and bruised fresh bay leaves. Meter-high flames shot from the pan. After just a minute or two, he slid the mushrooms onto a small plate and we stabbed at them with toothpicks. Their texture had turned velvety, and hints of the garlic and bay graced their â€¨robust woodsy flavor.
Mustapha then began preparing a deceptively simple cream of chanterelle soup, made with potatoes, onions, and a handful of parsley plucked from the garden outside. When it was ready, I went into the dining room to enjoy the rich depth of the mushroomsâ€™ natural flavors, which seemed to blossom from Mustaphaâ€™s light-handed treatment. Unmasked by other ingredients, the chanterelles, in contrast to the sautĂ©ed porcini, had a light earthy freshness and a slightly peppery finish.
While I was eating, Jaber came into the dining room. He knew a different forest where I might have luck finding Caesarâ€™s mushrooms, he said, and heâ€™d called another shepherd who would take me out in the morning. Maybe later, if the cedar groves werenâ€™t snowbound, I could look for matsutakes. As I finished my soup, I was already imagining the wonderful things that â€¨Mustapha would do with those varieties.
Tangierâ€™s Ibn Battouta Airport is connected to several European cities, including Amsterdam, Paris, and London. From there, a private taxi will get you to the Chefchaouen area in under two hours.
Where to Stay
Situated about 11 kilometers south of Chefchaouen, Auberge Dardara has 21 rooms, six of which come with fireplacesâ€”a welcome amenity if youâ€™re visiting in the colder months. The restaurant here is considered the best in the region, and is a popular weekend lunch destination for day-trippers from Tangiers. Trekking and cooking classes are among the activities on offer (212-539/707-007; doubles from US$55, including breakfast).
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2017Â print issue of DestinAsian magazine (â€śMushroom Hunting in Moroccoâ€ť).