From the woods

From the woods

By
Emiko Davies
Contains
13 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781743792117
Photographer
Emiko Davies; Lauren Bamford

Mushroom foraging on Monte Argentario

By the end of summer I’m ready for a change. Don’t get me wrong. I love nothing more than being barefoot. I love eating fresh peaches and melons for lunch, jammy figs or gelato as snacks, and I adore ripe, squidgy tomatoes with olive oil for dinner. But after a particularly hot summer, I’m ready for a chill in the air, for wearing scarves and hats, and indulging in a warming cup of tea in the afternoon. Seeing mushrooms is the hint that that’s all soon to come.

By August, mushroom gatherers have already got a plan to andare a funghi in the chestnut and oak woods looking for late-summer funghi, which will then be used in soup, tossed with pappardelle or layered on top of crostini.

Umberto, a friend who lives in Porto Ercole, is a hairdresser by trade but moonlights as a mushroom forager and fisherman – like many Maremmans. He shows me the photographs of his latest mushroom haul – what looks like hundreds of porcini spread out over and filling the top of a large table. He doesn’t even like porcini, but his friends do, so he picks them, bags them and freezes them or gives them away.

When I ask him how he learned how to identify and know where to find wild mushrooms, he looks at me as if I just asked him how he learned to walk and talk. He shrugs, but then responds that it’s from going foraging with his family as a child, and then later while going hunting with friends – you’d spot the mushrooms as you were walking through the forest.

He doesn’t have to go far to find them; they are everywhere if you know how and where to look for them. Sometimes Umberto spots mushrooms on the way to his daughter’s preschool and will return with bags of them on the back of the motorino.

Monte Argentario is full of rich, serene and unique Mediterranean forest and scrub. Not only do the wild boars love it, but the mushrooms do too – in the right season, they’re prolific, especially when the right amount of rain follows the summer. Once an ancient island, now joined to the mainland by the sandy, pine-covered dunes of Feniglia and Giannella, Argentario has a unique mixture of plant life, which Umberto is convinced makes the mushrooms more delicious and more aromatic than anything he has ever tasted on the mainland. Here, he collects mushrooms under cork trees, corbezzolo (Irish strawberry trees) and erica (heather), rather than the more commonplace oaks of inland Maremma, and there’s no doubt this rich combination of plant life contributes to beautifully fragrant and tasty mushrooms.

Before going mushroom picking you should not only be armed with a good, illustrated book on local mushrooms, but if you are a novice, make sure you have an expert with you as well. An illustrated book is not the only way to help you choose the right mushrooms; note that toxic mushrooms will often let you know by sight and smell that they are not for eating. There are some types of boletus (porcini-related) that you cannot mistake for being poisonous, thanks to their unusual colours: they have red stems and when you cut into them the flesh of the mushrooms turn blue. Similarly, the fairytale bright red, white-spotted mushrooms are to be avoided. Often a toxic mushroom also has an unpleasant, harsh smell – the kind of smell that you don’t want to put in your mouth. Nature has its way of telling you. Good mushrooms should smell wonderful: earthy, nutty, but more specifically like almonds or amaretti, sometimes like flour, uncooked bread dough, butter, aniseed or even honey. In Tuscany, if you are not a resident in the area where you are foraging, you need to obtain a permit. You will also need clothes that cover arms and legs, gloves and a basket (not a plastic bag – the spores of the mushrooms should be able to fall through the cracks in the basket, to help the continuity of mushrooms growing in the area).

Caesar’s mushrooms

Ovoli (Amanita caesarea) These beautiful mushrooms start out looking like round, bright vermillion-orange eggs (hence their Italian name, which means ‘egg’). But then they grow with a long thin stem holding up a deep-orange umbrella-like top with lemon-yellow gills. They like to grow in the shade of oak and chestnut trees, and do particularly well after a very hot summer. The best way to eat the young, egg-shaped ones is raw, thinly sliced, with olive oil. When cooked, these rusty-orange capped mushrooms give out a beautiful yolk-coloured sauce, looking almost like it is spiced with saffron. Ancient Romans were as fond of these as their modern counterparts, hence their name in English. It is even thought that the Roman armies helped distribute this native Italian mushroom north of the peninsula as they are still found along ancient Roman routes. Although it’s not hard to see the difference, note that there is a related mushroom that is toxic (it is not deadly but will cause highly unpleasant results if you eat it). Amanita muscaria looks in all ways similar except for the colour – deep red caps with little white or beige spots just like a fairy toadstool. The most deadly of all mushrooms, the aptly named ‘Death Cap’ (Amanita phalloides) is a common mushroom with a similar form but, again, colour will help you distinguish them (these have a greenish-tinted cap). They are rarely found in mountains, but do like to grow near oak and cork trees.

Chanterelle mushrooms

Galletti (Cantharellus cibarius) Pretty, yolk-yellow chanterelle mushrooms are sweet and delicate – and excellent prepared with calamari or with pasta. These mushrooms take on different characteristics depending on the trees you find them under.

Monk’s head

Ordinali (Clitocybe geotropa or Infundibulicybe geotropa) These are highly prized mushrooms that go by many a name. In English they’re known as trooping funnel or monk’s head. In Argentario they’re also known as cardarelle, named after the shape of its cap, which opens up to the sky like the traditional buckets used by muratori (builders). They also go by funghi di san Martino or cimballo (for their cymbal-like shape) and even Maremmano, which is self-explanatory. Cream-coloured with a sturdy stem, they grow in rings (‘fairy rings’ as we say; Italians call them ‘witches circles’) in fields, where their presence makes the grass greener. Look for young ones, which have an intense, nutty aroma. Some say you can cook these in place of truffles, such is their strong, pleasant scent. They’re good for roasting, stewing (Umberto likes adding them to a sugo) or preserving in oil.

Parasol mushroom

Bubbola or Mazza di tamburo (Macrolepiota procera or Lepiota procera) These mushrooms have a delicate flavour and slender stems bearing a shaggy parasol top that can grow to the size of a dinner plate. When you find them with the top still closed, much like an umbrella shut tight, these are particularly good roasted (cook them well; they are slightly toxic in their raw state). A very similar mushroom known as the shaggy parasol (Lepiota rhacodes or Chlorophyllum rhacodes) is like a miniature version of the bubbola that grows in beds of fallen needles from fir trees. Note that this mushroom is very similar to a number of toxic ones: lepiota cristata, or false mazza di tamburo and, in North America, Chlorophyllum molybdites (the ‘false parasol’).

Porcini

(Boletus edulis) The king of mushrooms barely needs an introduction; they are the most prized, of course, and the most used in traditional dishes. With a unique aroma and flavour, these are found mostly in autumn in pine forests but Porcini estivi (Boletus aestivalis) can be found (as their name hints) in summer, growing under chestnuts, oak and beech trees. Like the galletti, they’re wonderful prepared with calamari.

Weeping bolete

Pinaioli/Pinaroli (Boletus granulatus or Suillus granulatus) Named for their special attachment to pine trees, under which they grow, these mushrooms have a shiny cap, which is sticky when wet and pale-yellow, sweet flesh. Remove the stalks and peel the cap before eating and then try them sliced and deep-fried or preserved in oil as in Carciofini Sott’olio.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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