Archive for the ‘Funghi’ Tag

Source: Funghi Selling near Pistoia c. 1890   Leave a comment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following was written by an English resident of a small Appenine village after observing his contadini neighbours sell funghi to travelling salesmen. SY

The dampness of the rains coming in the warm season, has produced a most prolific crop of mushrooms. The people of the Nook and of Piteglio are making fortunes, according to the mountain idea of riches. I was told that at Piteglio the joint profits of this year have been several thousand francs. The mushroom season just comes in between the wheat harvest and the chestnut gathering, and if the season be good, it is nearly as profitable as the other crops. Whilst the men are threshing corn on the aias, or digging up the ground with the huge adze which does duty for a plough, the women, girls, and boys get up at sunrise, and wander about the chestnut woods in search of funghi.

If you wonder at the strangeness of their garments, know that it is considered lucky to wear one’s clothes inside out on a mushroom excursion. The contents of their baskets on their return would also astonish you considerably, for the Italian edible mushrooms are many, and brilliantly coloured; they, however, reject our English edible species as a toadstool, and we were threatened with dire disasters when we persisted in cooking some fine specimens. The favourite kind here is the Ceppattello, a large brown fungus, with a greenish white spongy substance beneath. The largest specimens are cut up (stalk and all) by housewives, and after being dried in the sun for some days, are put into paper bags and preserved dry for winter use; the little button-shaped ones, called sometimes ‘porcini’, are chosen as the best to preserve under oil, after having been put into boiling vinegar and then dried. They make a very good condiment to eat with the lesso (bouilli), or with cold meat.

Another very savoury mushroom is the ovolo, a large handsome fungus, orange red above, prim rose yellow beneath. It is called ovolo, or eggshaped, because it comes up in an oval form covered with a thick white film, through which the yellow part rises and expands, the white film being transformed into a frill round the stalk. Then there are certain carmine red flat-topped funghi, with yellow rays beneath, called by the mountaineers famiglioli, and the claviari, which look like branches of coralline; the grifole, a mass of fan- shaped fungus, of a dark or grey colour; this is so hard that it is not eatable unless it is first boiled and then baked. But the species which most suggests poison to our English minds, are large yellow masses of soft substance, called also grifole, or more correctly poliporo, some of which are yellow of the most brilliant colour, and others which the peasants call lingua di castagno (chestnut tongues), of a bright carmine. All the last four species grow on chestnut or oak trees, springing from the bark.

The mushroom merchants are doing a brisk business this year. They come round to all the villages and hamlets every morning, and buy up all they can get, piling them on a large cart in flat baskets one on the other, to sell to the wholesale dealers. When only one merchant arrives he makes his own price, and it is a hard bargain for the villagers, who only get about four or five centesimi (less than a halfpenny) per lb. This morning an impromptu market is established on the aia of Pietro, and a most amusing scene it is. About twenty women from neighbouring hamlets stand about, each guarding her baskets of funghi, and oh! good luck! two rival merchants. There is the usual keen-eyed man from San Marcello, and a care-for-nought style of youth who has come down from Prunetta to do a little business. This fellow has black eyes and a mass of ugly black hair, which requires much shaking and thrusting back under his hat. He wears a pink shirt and blue tie, and smokes a meerschaum pipe which does not at all interfere with the freedom of his speech, for he talks incessantly.

There is fierce bidding between them, the young purchaser recklessly promising more than his rival, till he had raised the offers from four centesimi a lb to six-and-a-half. Here the elder man prudently retired from the contest, saying that he could not get that back for them in Florence. Accordingly all the women flocked eagerly to the youth from Prunetta, who began weighing their baskets very willingly on his steel-yard, which these itinerant buyers carry about with them. He would willingly cheat them in the payment, but is kept to his bargain by his rival, who, having no purchases, stands by to see fair play.

A brisk trade continues till the elder man shoulders his scale and departs, when lo! what a Babel ensues. ‘Now hark ye, donne’ cries the buyer, ‘these are not real prices, you know. I only paid high to keep him out of it,’ pointing to the departing rival, ‘but the market price is five centesimi, and not one more cent will I pay.’

Great excitement ensues. All the women lift up their voices shrilly, and the appellations they bestow on him are not remarkable for politeness; they surround him in a crowd, shaking their fists in his face, till he retreats to the wall, where he takes off his hat, and, pushing back his curls, awaits the lulling of the storm.

‘It is not fair; you cannot bargain for one price and pay another; you paid Enrichetta six-and-a-half a lb and you shall pay me the same,’ exclaimed a stout angry woman. ‘I shall go to Piteglio with mine, and you shan’t have an ounce of them. I would rather give them to an honest man than sell them to you.’

And up goes a large basket on the frizzled head of a red-haired girl, but it comes down again on her friends reminding her that she will only get four-and-a-half centesimi there, and have all the trouble of carrying them a mile. ‘Then I’ll sell them to the other man, he offered five-and-a-half.’

She rushes off, followed by two or three others calling, ‘O Giorgio, come back! Come back!’

Giorgio, who had not really gone away, strolls back in an unconcerned manner, and coolly inquires, ‘What is up?’

‘That birbone won’t give more than five centesimi now, so we will let you have them at five-and-a-half.’

‘Ah!’ says he, ‘but I am not going to give more than five either.’ Sig. Giorgio was a student of human nature, and seeing that the women were too angry with his rival to deal at any price, he knew he might make his own tariff now.

‘Oh! That’s too bad, you offered five-and-a-half just now,’ cried our nice little Matilde. ‘Just so, but you would not deal; now he has changed his mind, and so have I,’ and the mushroom merchant laughs sardonically.

In despair the women consult together. ‘Shall we go to Piteglio? perhaps the man from Pistoia is there,’ asks one.

‘No, he isn’t; there is only Luigi il Pazzo buying there to-day.’

‘Besides,’ adds a third, ‘he only pays five centesimi, and we should have all the walk besides’.

‘My basket is heavy, I shall lighten it here,’ laughs the red-haired girl, showing all her white teeth. The others follow her example, and the remaining stock is weighed and haggled over to the very last ounce of yellow ovoli, but the merchant is very much at a loss for small change to pay his many clients. So little accustomed is he to any but the very dirtiest of paper money, that when I changed a five-franc note into bright new silver half-francs, he looked quite incredulous, and asked whether they were good!

We were told by one of the women that the people of Piteglio a village in which there is neither butcher nor baker have this year gained several thousand francs by their mushrooms, the joint gathering of thevillage being nearly 3,000 lbs a day.

It is a blessed provision of Providence that in these regions, where, by reason of the mountainous nature of the land, agriculture is both difficult and unproductive, that the chief means of sustenance are drawn from nature alone, and man only has to gather. The chestnuts supply him with food for the whole winter, the woods and hedges give into his hands mushrooms, bilberries, and raspberries enough to make up the fewfrancs which are necessary for his clothing.

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Posted January 24, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: Irish Times articles on Italian food in the north   Leave a comment

The following article appeared in the Irish Times 24 Dec 2010: the original can be found here in this excellent piece by Ken Doherty. SY

It is sometimes said that a good year for wine is a bad year for truffles. Something to do with a sufficient amount of rain satisfying the grape but sadly not enough to yield a crop of truffles. As we strolled around the pretty cobbled streets of Alba in northwest Italy – the go-to town for the truffle-nut – it looked like a bumper year for the musty fungal.

The town was overcome with truffle triumphalism. Every other shop window was festooned with the real thing or jokey simulacrums to excite the tourists. Having only tasted black truffles, and this being the truffle season, it was the pungency of its white relation that we were after. It started with a plan. The family, two adults and a baby, would, on a tour of the fertile north of Italy, make their way to the food and wine rich trinity of Gavi, Asti and Alba. Setting off from our base at a wonderful agriturismo (countryside BB), we would gobble as much of the region’s culinary specialities as we could.

As the bus rumbled its way up the narrow roads towards the village of Gavi in Piemonte, we sensed a treat in store. Gavi doesn’t just rely on its spectacular setting to woo you in. Its sumptuous vistas are a close second to its main draw. People make the pilgrimage to this tiny hamlet to experience its famous sweet and acidic white wines. We came for both.

Most of its wineries are just outside the town and, since we were car-free and baby-tied, we explored its medieval centre on foot. Its compact and charmingly dilapidated streets and buildings were quiet by late afternoon. On its main drag we stumbled into Antico Caffe Del Moro, pasticceria-bar-canteen-ice cream parlour and breast feeding refuge all rolled into one. We quickly fell prey to the proprietor’s big-hearted welcome and were given an introductory lesson to the intricacies of viniculture in Gavi.

After a quick feed from her mammy, all this nattering had a soporific effect on the baby. We were afforded a few tastings of what the Gavi vintage (from the Cortese grape) and its regional wines had to offer. This braced us for one of the many decent walks around the town.

Asti was different. It bristles with a more rugged atmosphere, especially during the twice weekly outdoor market days. Traders set up stall every Wednesday and Saturday in Campo del Palio but disappear by late afternoon. When we arrived at noon it was in full flow.

Amid all the cheaply-made threads and kitchen paraphernalia there is a wonderful food market that spoke of the season we were in. Stalls heaving with knobbly mushrooms, voluptuous squash and sultry plums made our bellies rumble.

The banter between stall holders and customers was imbued with typical Italian feeling – wildly gestating hands performing in the narrowest personal space possible. And for those who like to overturn historical myths and inaccuracies, the square is spiked with significance. Every September it hosts a bareback horse race similar to the famous Palio in Siena, Tuscany. But wait. In Asti, they claim their race is at least 300 years older!

Alba has the confident air of a regional capital. Situated in the rolling hills of the Langhe, it’s hemmed in by the vineyards that produce the famous Barolo, Barbera and Barbaresco wines. From the bus stop it’s only a short walk to the old town. We noticed that if your appetite wasn’t sated by wine and truffles, you could always undergo some retail therapy in its many expensive designer boutiques.

It was getting late and we were the ones who might need clinical gastronomic therapy if we didn’t see some truffle action soon. We skipped into Vincafe on Via Vittorio Emanuele and were not disappointed. The place was buzzing.

We started with some silky lardo (pure cured pork fat) that sweetly lined our stomachs for what was to come. I swear I could hear the drums roll as our truffle dishes made their way from the kitchen. Both dishes, baked eggs ( cocotte con tartufo bianco ) and pasta ( tagliarini con tartufo ) were decorated with wisps of white truffle. The price did make the eyes water but what the hell, I now understand why a lot of chefs choose it as a death row last meal.

Gavi, Asti and Alba are repositories of all that is good about Italy. Fantastic food, unforgettable scenery and a genuinely warm welcome. So make your way to this part of the peninsula, hardly undiscovered, but a region steeped in such significant culinary lore it can only be a gift that keeps on giving.

Posted January 19, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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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?

Posted January 15, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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