What is it about the pine forests of Els Ports that every September and October, if it has rained, they become a Mecca for mushroom lovers. The ‘robellón’ mushroom is a magnet that attracts tens, hundreds, thousands of mushroom hunters to the forest, attracted by its reddish colour. But it’s not only the ‘robellón’ that brings mushroom lovers back home with a basket full of mushrooms. All year round, mushrooms are an attraction for nature and the table, although autumn is the star season when a symphony of trumpets is played, and they are to die for. In the restaurants in the area, chefs combine mushrooms with meat: beef, lamb, rabbit… And with desserts! Yes, with desserts, in flans, ice creams or carpaccio.
If you reach Els Ports by crossing the Querol pass, the Coll d’Ares, meandering along the Bergantes or following the course of the river Cantavieja, you will reach a feast for the palate. The beehives that can be seen from the roads are the announcement of rich honey from aromatic flowers; honey with curd or cheese, or with cottage cheese. And where does the cheese come from? The answer is still in the car window. Along the banks of the Bergantes, in the meadows of Morella or among dry stone terraces, the flocks of sheep and goats graze and offer their milk so that artisan hands can transform it into cheeses -fresh and cured-, cottage cheeses or curds. Curds that curdle with the rennet of the thistle flower. Everything from the land to the table.
In this gustatory journey from here to there we stop at the Frito, the tinned food. And the fact is that the pig has satisfied many hungers and continues to be a gastronomic mainstay. From the slaughter everything was used: loin, ham and sausages and the bone to the pot. The pot in Els Ports is hearty, as is the climate in winter. But let’s not forget the piglet, as the short-legged quadruped with a rounded tail is known. In addition to the sausages, the Bolo is also a hallmark of the butcher’s shops.
In addition to visiting the restaurants in the area, a good culinary tool for eating like the locals is the book “La cocina de Els Ports, recetas valencianas de montaña” (The cuisine of Els Ports, the valencian recipes of the mountains).
If the products of the land are the origin of the dishes, we should not overlook the fact that Els Ports has always been a land of passage. The transhumant livestock and their shepherds give a good account of this every spring and autumn. Perhaps that is why the locals are not surprised to eat tortilla with rice. And since the world is big and at the same time small, potatoes came from America and have taken deep root in Els Ports. The potatoes from unirrigated land have no competition in the kitchen. There was a time when from La Plana they came here with oranges and left with potatoes. Speaking of the coast. In Els Ports, in dinosaur times, there was a sea. Now it is further down, but that doesn’t stop the fish from reaching the plate. Today fresh, years ago and also now in salted fish.
If our route takes us to the oven, we must give free rein to our sense of smell. In winter, there is nothing better than the aroma of bread baked in a wood-fired oven. And if that bread is baked in the oldest oven in Europe… historic bread. It is worth a trip to Castellfort, Cinctorres, Forcall, Morella, Vilafranca… to find the antithesis of the pre-baked supermarket bread that does not last more than a morning. Bread from Els Ports is always good. In bar or loaf. We go into the oven for the bread and come out with cakes filled with sweet potato or pumpkin jam, delicious all year round, but especially when the Santantonada is celebrated. They can be pies or ‘coquetes’. The name of each preparation further authenticates each product. When we leave Morella through any doorway, it is a must to take a box of ‘flaons’, filled with cottage cheese, a feast for the taste buds, worthy of a return visit.
The seasons of the year shape the table. When Easter arrives, the doughnuts, stuffed with meat, arrive. There are villages where the oven has been turned off, but it is lit again when Sant Antoni or Easter itself arrives. At Christmas and Carnival, balls in the pot. Breadcrumbs and then, depending on the house, ham, egg, lard…
Less festive are ‘gachas’ or ‘farinetes’. This cereal-based pastry has fed more than one age-old famine.
The croquette is ‘morellana’ in Morella and in Vilafranca it is Napoleon. Some say that the name evokes the triangular hat of the French emperor. Well, in Els Ports, Napoleon is eaten and the mouth becomes Waterloo.
We had already tried some meats, but we could not resist the temptation of grilled rabbit, or rabbit with chocolate, or rabbit in canned. The kid goat, baked in the oven, raised in the pastures of the region, is still an indecent proposition. The veal, also from the land, could not be more tender. From the veal, the smoked meat, cured in the cold. Its flavour is deep and leaves its mark. The meat journey also includes game which, wisely cooked, is welcome in autumn and winter.
And beyond traditional dishes, the region has also jumped on the bandwagon of the most innovative gastronomy. With the same old products, the chefs devise and cook, and above all they cook, delicacies that surprise.
Satiated as we are, we wash it all down with an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory rock tea. With that, we set off for the next gastronomic experience.
Whoever has read this far thought that we had forgotten the truffle. No, no, we haven’t. We haven’t forgotten it. In the temple of gastronomy, the truffle is the High altar, with a capital letter. Flavouring oils, meats or desserts. Growing secretly in the roots of the holm oaks to bring to the table the essence of the land of Els Ports. It has been said that it is black gold. That’s what it is. Black gold that Els Ports has and few other places. That’s why road, blanket or jacket that cools down, the odd bend, and to the table.