Source: Funghi hunting c. 1900   Leave a comment

The following comes from the account of a British author, c. 1900. Mafalda and Francesca, it should be noted, are Italian children with imperfect English.

It must be said that many funghi are poisonous and that no modern funghi hunter would collect ditole (pictured) in the reckless fashion that the three intrepid funghi hunters adopt here!

SY

Mushrooms, like manna, should be gathered afresh every morning, and on that October day the weather was ideal for the search. A week of soaking rain had been followed by hot sunshine, and the warm, damp earth was a perfect forcing-bed in which every fungus was hastening upwards at the top of its speed. Certainly such a morning must be devoted to a mushroom hunt: there was no need for Salvatore to tell us so; we knew it from our own experience as veteran hunters, without any advice from him; and, with nailed boots, baskets and clasp-knives, were off in the fresh of the morning, with a joyous sense of adventure, to seek these coy creatures of the wood.

The dogs, who understand perfectly the pleasures which await them when country-boots and baskets are the order of the day, barked and bounded in an ecstasy of delight as we took the narrow track among the olives; then, having expressed their approval of the expedition, fell into a long, straggling procession down the road. Adolfo, the gardener, paused in his work of pruning roses to prophesy that we should return empty-handed; but Adolfo is a pessimist, so his prediction troubled us not a whit as we toiled up the steep slopes of the green and golden woods.

The sun shone upon the emerald turf and undergrowth; the dying oak thickets glowed like bronze; blue mists lingered among the distant tree-trunks; the ground in sheltered places was rosy with cyclamens; the pine-needles filled the air with their spicy fragrance. Far down on the plain lay Florence, with its belfries and cupolas, and the great dome which Brunelleschi set, dwarfed by distance to the size of an egg-shell, rising in the midst. Beyond rose the mountains, and it was pleasant to be assured by the aspect of Monte Morello that we were in no danger of rain. This mountain, now bare, but once covered with thick forests through which rang the bells of little lonely churches, is exceedingly weather-wise, serving the Florentines as barometer; and the habit of a good Florentine, asked to prophesy the weather, is to glance up at the mountain, and reply with the old rhyme ‘Quando Monte Morello, mette il cappello, Pigli l’ombrello.’ [When Monte Morello has a hat, get an umbrella]

It was a perfect morning. Birds sang softly among the white flowers of the myrtle thickets. Now and again a rabbit slid through the fern, rousing sudden excitement in the dogs. The scarlet and orange balls on the arbutus trees glowed in the sun like fairy fruit among their burnished leaves, and on the prickly juniper bushes the berries clustered, misty blue. A juniper is a pretty shrub, and its fruit useful for the making of gin; but I think Elijah must indeed have been hard put to it when, going a day’s journey into the wilderness, he sat down under the shadow of one to rest and pray that his life might be taken from him, though perhaps the juniper trees of Palestine are larger, more capable of shade-giving than the stunted bushes of Italian woods.

The first mushroom was found by Francesca, and was a noble specimen of the ovolo tribe, orange-red above, primrose colour beneath; a class of fungus which takes its name from the manner of its growth, coming up through the soil in a cream-skinned egg, and after splitting this outer covering, opening in the sun like an orange parasol. But our search at first was, on the whole, unsuccessful, for the peasant boys had already been out since daybreak; and as little had escaped their sharp eyes the baskets remained distressingly light.

Among the contadini, the mushrooms which they send their children to gather prove a profitable crop, as they sell them at the Villa or in the town, either for immediate eating, or to be preserved under oil as a pickle for winter use. Especially are they valued in the mountains, where the people have little to live upon save their chestnuts, and the strawberries, raspberries, and mushrooms with which the varying seasons fill the woods.

Still we rambled on, confident that sooner or later some splendid discovery would reward our search. I wonder in what lies the fascination of a mushroom hunt! Certainly it is not the desire to eat mushrooms, for those can be set before me in every variety without my moving hand or foot; yet there is undoubtedly some charm which leads me day after day to clamber about the wooded slopes with eyes bent upon the turf and dead leaves and broom bushes; and even when I return emptyhanded I am always ready to set out again with fresh enthusiasm next day. It must be a spark of that adventurous spirit which once drove men forth in search of El Dorado; that passion which led the old explorers, sailing over unknown and mighty waters, or toiling through Alpine snows or desert sands, to go forward ever one league farther, feeling that realisation of hope and fulfilment of effort might lie at the end of that next mile. The feeling that any moment may reveal the longed-for treasure, the earnestly sought knowledge, has encouraged and led to all the world’s discoveries; and the desire to see round the next corner of life’s road, the expectation of something pleasant lurking there, is as strong in small things as in great. The excitement of the search, the eternal spring of hope, which made great enterprises possible, prompts me to walk on, my eyes fixed upon the ground, because I feel that the next foot of earth may prove a South Sea of discovery, that any moment may, after a whole barren hour, reveal a majestic ovolo, a sturdy porcine or, most glorious discovery of all, a crisp family of golden ditole.

The Italians eat far more varieties of fungi than the English, and many which we despise as toadstools would on an Italian table hold an honoured place; but for an ardent searcher there is, in all the mushroom world, no greater joy than the discovery of ditole. Its crisp form resembles a clump of golden coral as it pushes up under the moss, where some yellow gleam, some protruding sprig betrays its presence; and when the excited seeker turns back the green coverlet, a group may be discovered, so large as to half fill the basket, when carefully dug up with a knife. Ditole has another charm, in that it flourishes not only in families but in colonies, other clumps being almost invariably found in the neighbourhood of the first; porcine also have this domestic habit, growing in pairs, or, as Mafalda expresses it, a gentleman and lady side by side.

As we climbed farther up the hill our patience was rewarded with more success; but, alas! while Francesca and I had both fairly well-filled baskets, Mafalda, for all her diligence in searching, had not found a single one. In vain had I offered her my best ones; her lofty spirit scorned such compromise. ‘I have not found them, I!’ was the form of her refusal; and I recognised the true spirit of the adventurer, and realised that it was not mere mushrooms which Mafalda wanted, but the proud moments when effort should be rewarded and hope be emptied in delight. ‘Never mind, dear,’ put in Francesca, offering a crude consolation. ‘Poverina, you are sure to find some soon!’ Pity in such a moment was, however, the one unbearable injury. Mafalda tossed her head. ‘It makes me nothing!’ she replied tartly: ‘these noiosi funghi, I want them not, I’ and she turned her back upon us in a lofty manner, toiling up the slope on fat bare legs whose lagging action betrayed the anguish of her soul.

Francesca and I exchanged glances: something must clearly be done. I saw a dreadful tear roll down the round, flushed cheek; evidently wounded pride and disappointment held sway together in Mafalda’s heart. Providence was kind in that moment; I saw a gleam of yellow in the shadow of a stack of brushwood. Checking the involuntary burst of jubilee, I passed by unheeding, and from a little distance up the hill directed Mafalda’s weary search.’ If I were you, I would look under that big pine-tree, Mafalda; that seems to me a very likely place. No? Well, under the arbutus! Nothing there? I am surprised! Perhaps in that patch of moss beside the path! What? Really! How wonderful! What a clever child!’ as a shout of triumph rent the air, and Mafalda fell on her knees before her treasure, a great clump of ditole, crisp and golden in its bed of moss. The joy of the discovery rendered her momentarily speechless, and seizing my hand, she pointed in dramatic silence to the fungus, which I promptly transferred, with many congratulations, to the basket, since if she did it herself, the knife might, as she wisely admitted, ‘sore’ her hand. ‘Never have I seen a thing so beautiful!’ she exclaimed rapturously, gazing at her well-filled basket, for the first clump had been the prelude to several discoveries in the near neighbourhood. ‘And I have found it, I myself; am very brave to find them, the funghi, non e vero?’

After this happy event we pursued our way in good spirits, although it was distressing to find many places where only the white roots remained of ditole clumps which had been nibbled off to the level of the ground. ‘It is those sheeps of Paradiso’, snapped Francesca vindictively, when she saw the traces. ‘I wish that they may die, every one!’ This would have been a somewhat extreme punishment, and I hinted as much to her; but Francesca is as stern on the subject of mushrooms as any English landowner over the preservation of game.

We came upon some of these guilty animals a few minutes later, and upon the shepherd himself, a weatherbeaten man, staff in hand, who, with his dog at his feet and his back set against a tree-trunk, was gazing vacantly out across the Val d’Arno, and the undulating ripple of far blue hills. As I looked at him I feared that the shepherd’s vocation was wasted upon Paradiso; I doubted if he had any full perception of its joys. Yet it must be a good life, to dwell with all this beauty, and to have the long sunny hours in which to wander in the silence of the hillside, marking the time by the steps of the sun in heaven; and, from the going forth in the morning until the flocks are folded at night, hearing the music of birds and waters, watching the march of the seasons across the land, and feeding one’s soul upon the beauty of the world. I believe that I should be quite happy under such circumstances, in love as I am with the open air and sky, the grass and trees, and all the creatures of fur and feather which dwell in fields and woods. Of course I should have a dog; that is the right of every shepherd; and it would certainly be Plato, that big, grotesque, long-haired animal whom I love best of all the dogs on the place. When I need consolation, it is of Plato that I seek it, and find real comfort in feeling his large warm paw laid in my hand, and in meeting the grave kind gaze from beneath his shaggy fringe. I can never realise that Plato is a mere child, being little more than one year old; his long hair, his great, thoughtful, pathetic eyes with their earnest gaze suggest, like his name, some elderly sage or philosopher, and I have a sense of reliance upon him as upon some old and trusty friend. In spite of his strange appearance Plato must, I am sure, come of a noble family, for at times he assumes most stately attitudes, which contrast oddly with his rather clumsy build. When we are down in the ravine, crab-catching, he extends himself upon the rock above, the living presentment of the Lion of Lucerne; and whenever, out walking, he has a spare instant, he lies down, and gravely observes the landscape with thoughts which ‘do lie too deep for words’. I should like to discuss this pastoral question with Paradiso; to hear his opinion on the subject, and know whether, in his primitive soul, untouched by the breath of modern life, still lingers that profound, if dumb, love of nature, that poetry and ancient folklore in which his country is so rich; and if he is content to dwell alone with nature and be the friend of the creatures, or, not knowing how blessed he is, cherishes visions, never to be realised, of life as a music-hall artist or master of a city trattoria.

Francesca, however, refused to linger while I satisfied myself on these points; she clearly held the shepherd responsible for the doings of his sheep, and in any case it was hopeless to look for mushrooms anywhere in the neighbourhood of the flock. The baskets were well filled at last, and the boom of the midday cannon, which reached us faintly from Florence, the bells ringing from the little hillside churches, warned us that it was time to be turning our steps towards the house. As we made our way through the heather, where the bees were humming as busily as if it were midsummer, we met an old man bent upon the same errand as ourselves, but with sadly different results. He was very old, very ragged; his clothes were patched with a score of colours, his long grey hair hung down below a battered felt hat; in his eyes was the dim, pathetic expression only seen in the eyes of the very old. He told us, in quavering tones, that he would be eighty-four next Ogni Santi; that he was past work, but that he came out to look for mushrooms, because his povera vecchia, his poor old wife, was ill, had no teeth, and needed soft food now. But he could see little, and the stooping made his back ache, and there seemed to be less mushrooms in these days than there were when he was a boy. Poor old fellow! He was a pitiful sight among the heather and the sunlight and the glad sounds and sights of the woods. He was feeble and worn-out, a burden on the sons at home, where there were many little mouths to fill. It was a pathetic age after a life of toil, and the sight of him made a shade in the sunshine as when some wayside Calvary throws its shadow across the sunny way. It was one of those sorrows for which there is no comfort, which make one’s heart ache with a universal pity for all the lonely, old, and sad.

The great basket, large, perhaps, as the hope with which he had set out to look for food for his vecchia and the little ones, was almost empty; it stood under a tree with the bit of dry, dark bread for his dinner, while he wandered slowly about, a dreary, shrunken figure, his frequent ejaculations of ‘Oi! Oi!’ witnessing to the aching of the rheumatic limbs. I looked from the three full baskets to the empty one, then at the two children, and they understood at once. I was the first to empty out my mushrooms; Francesca, always quick to give, followed my example promptly; only Mafalda hesitated. She was very little, and the treasure to her was very great; she looked wistfully at her basket, then at me. I shook my head as I met the appeal in the blue eyes. ‘He will have enough now,’ I told her. But Mafalda, after the momentary reluctance, rose to the occasion nobly. ‘I give, also I!’ she responded with dignity; and, her basket emptied, we slipped away without a word.

‘Will he think Madonna sent them?’ asked Mafalda, as, hand in hand, we went down the heather-covered slope. Perhaps. Who knows? To his simple mind this may well seem food sent direct from Heaven. ‘Adolfo said we should come back with empty baskets’, remarked Francesca, swinging her stick as she walked; and I realised that, though she did not regret the mushrooms, it stung a little that Adolfo should be right. Yet what if he were? There are better things even in a mushroom hunt than full baskets, and if ours were empty, another’s and he more needy by far was full. It is not given to us every day to be agents in a miracle; and to the old man, I am sure, this sudden multiplication of his mushrooms could seem nothing less. So we reached the house in jubilant spirits, if emptyhanded, for what do mushrooms matter to those who have been fellow-workers of a miracle, and who have been privileged to set the little coloured shrine of some kindly deed by the dusty wayside of another’s road of life?

Advertisements

Posted January 15, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: