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On the Land in Umbria - Hunting for Mushrooms (Funghi Porcini)

Anne Robichaud

In the late 1970's, when we farmed our land, I often went mushrooming with my contadina (farm woman) neighbors. When warm days followed a rain, it was time to put on rubber boots, grab a walking stick and willow basket and head for the woods.

Willow baskets were woven by the farmers at the fireside on winter nights. These baskets were used for the grape and olive harvests, but also for mushrooming, "cos, le molliche arnascono", as our neighbor (and often my companion for hunting funghi) Chiarina would say in Umbrian dialect. The rough translation is "so that the crumbs will be reborn". The willow baskets hold the mushrooms, but let the spores return to the heavy loam of the woods.

Husband Pino and daughter Giulia having mushrooms inspected by Chiarina. Photo by Anne Robichaud.

Husband Pino and daughter Giulia having mushrooms inspected by Chiarina

Chiarina taught me the names of the mushrooms and as a result, I do not use the botanical names of most of them but only their names in dialect.

Like every contadina (and contadino!), Chiarina had her favorite spots for funghi, which were rarely shared with anyone outside the immediate family. She knew where the precious porcini would pop up through the earth; where to find the reddish and ivory-colored lardaie; the best spots for the bright yellow manine (by a stretch of the imagination, perhaps they did resemble "little hands"). The famigliole ("little families") popped in clusters under oak and poplar trees in open fields. The earth-colored puzzoni (or "stinkers" - easily distinguishable by the moldy smell under the cap) were omnipresent in our woods during mushroom season.

If I went mushrooming on my own, I took my basketful to Chiarina or Mandina (my nearest farm women neighbors) so they could check them out, never quite trusting my own funghi-recognition capabilities. Now and then, we read in the papers about people ending up in the hospital with mushroom poisoning. The porcini and puzzoni especially have evil "twins"!

In December one year we had rain followed by unseasonably warm weather. On the first sunny day, our daughter Giulia headed for the woods with her Pap. An hour later, they returned home triumphantly with overflowing baskets. Off we all went to see Chiarina. She and her mother, Antonia, inspected them for us (see photo). Some were discarded with admonitions of "o Dio mio!" but enough "passed" for delicious funghi tomato sauces and many side dishes of roasted mushrooms.

How to Prepare Mushrooms

Mushrooms can be prepared in a variety of ways.

  • The porcini are delicious any way that you cook them, e.g. roasted on the grill with minced garlic, parsley and olive oil on top (the best way to cook puzzoni, too).
  • The manine enhance any tomato sauce, whether for pasta or for polenta.
  • Lardaie are tasty preserved under oil as an antipasto - or if prepared al funghetto (which means "the way to cook mushrooms").

Here is how to prepare mushrooms (even cultivated ones) al funghetto:

Cover the bottom of a skillet with olive oil and saute one or two finely-minced garlic cloves in the oil until golden. Add mushrooms and simmer briefly until cooked. Add finely-chopped parsley just before done and salt to taste. Serve.

Zucchini and eggplant are often prepared al funghetto as well.

Resources

Slow Travel Photos: See larger versions of Anne's photos on our photo gallery.


Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2002. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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