Digging out hidden treasures in Spain
Truffles are a rare delicacy and their hunters are a secretive bunch...
Snuffling through the undergrowth, Teo suddenly stops and scrabbles away at the ground.
As small stones and soil begin to fly – and before he can prise out what he’s looking for – the dog’s master Mario Cequier takes over.
On all fours and armed with his punal, a dagger-like tool with a mean spike, Mario triumphantly retrieves what looks like a small clump of brown earth.
A truffle successfully found! The rare delicacy is held in high regard and larger ones can be worth a fortune.
We are in the Spanish region of Somontano – the foothills of the Pyrenees, in the old Spanish kingdom of Aragon – and the scenery doesn’t get much better.
Truffles grow in the roots of evergreen oak trees on hills covered with wild rosemary, thyme and lavender plants.
Pigs were traditionally used to hunt truffles but Mario explains that dogs are now more commonly used.
“Most dogs are suitable – it’s not a matter of breed but whether they are willing to work,” he says.
“Pigs are more difficult to work with, harder to transport and when they find the truffles they try to eat them! Dogs sometimes also try to eat the truffles but less often.”
It’s quite a privilege to go foraging for truffles because the hunters are notoriously secretive about where to find the delicacies – in order to protect their livelihoods.
But a limited number of truffle hunts are open to tourists around the Somontano area.
Somontano’s clear, crisp air also makes the area ideal for growing wines.
Vinas Del Vero, a consortium of 14 estates producing a lengthy list of wines, is one of the main producers and its winery is open to the public.
Around the area we went truffle hunting at Secastilla – translated to mean seven castles – are some of the highest vineyards.
Barnardo Hualdae, of Vinas Del Vero, said: “We have vines growing as high up as 850 metres. The altitude gives a very slow maturation providing a greater sense of minerality, which is important for the flavour.”
The winery’s owners, sherry producer Gonzalez Byass, sell Vinas Del Vero wines in the UK via outlets including Ocado and Waitrose.
I stayed at Alquezar, a stunning hilltop village of warm yellow limestone above the Rio Vero, which gives the local winery its name.
Alquezar has been built around a former castle, which site on top of a jagged, tooth-like rock towering above the valley.
The old fortress is now a church and religious college – Santa Maria La Mayor – and includes a small museum. It is open for guided tours and has spectacular views.
The medieval village has a tradition of handcrafts, which are on sale as souvenirs, and its buildings have immensely detailed architecture such as carved wooden eaves and coats of arms in the stonework.
Around the area are caves, gorges and canyons which make it popular with visitors who like outdoor activities such as climbing, potholing and water sports.
You can also go walking in the hills, amid almond and olive trees, with the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance.
Three things to do:
1. Head to Graus, another historic town and home of the truffle industry, where there are regular fairs and trade shows which have taken place for centuries, plus shops selling the delicacy which you can explore.
2. Visit the Colegiata de Santa Maria La Mayor, a former fortess, now a church and religious college, which has guided tours at 11am and 4.30pm, costing 3 euros, including entry to the archaeological museum where you can acqaint yourself with the history of the area.
3. For thrill-seekers and those seeking a more active break , adventurous activities around the spectacular and scenic area can be organised through Vertientes Aventura, which take place from spring through to autumn. Visit Vertientes Aventura for details.
Getting there: Ryanair flies from London Stansted to Zaragoza on a limited number of days per week. Prices from £27.99 each way, excluding hold luggage and other fees.
Where to stay: Hotel Villa De Alquezar has rooms from 85 euros per night for a double room with terrace, including breakfast and parking. Visit Villa De Alquezar for information.
Truffle Hunting: The hotel also has information on activities around the Somontano area, including truffle hunting.
Winery visit: For information about visiting the Vinas Del Vero winery visit http://www.vinasdelvero.com/ingles To visit the winery, which is open 10am to 2pm and 4pm to 7pm Mondays to Fridays, plus Saturday 10am to 2pm, email [email protected]