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Invasion of the fun-guys: Wild mushrooms in Umbria

When summer begins to bleed into fall and the days alternate between earth-soaking downpours and warm, sunny skies you know it’s just a matter of hours before they appear.  Brightly colored or camouflaged in browns and greys, in groups or by themselves, tall and thin or squat and round, behind every tree trunk, under every shrub, they cover the forest floor and leave no doubt as to what season is about to begin.

Mushroom hunters.

Yes, foraging for wild mushrooms is such a popular pastime in Umbria that at times it seems like the hunters outnumber the hunted.  From late summer through fall until the first frosts draw the season to a close, the woods and meadows all across Umbria are invaded by basket-toting funghi devotees with their eyes fixed on the ground and their ears pricked for encroachers.  It’s a competitive sport, and like all sports has its rules—written and unwritten.

A sure sign that fall is here

A Place of One’s Own

Every mushroomer in Umbria has their special spot, and much cloak-ing and dagger-ing goes on to guard the exact coordinates as closely as if they were an Eye’s Only state secret.  Lifelong mushroomers remain more faithful to their mushrooming location than to their spouse.  My own father-in-law will leave the house with his basket in the crook of his elbow and, with a furtive look and rather transparent subterfuge, head off on foot in one direction only to double back once out of sight and disappear into a completely different wood.  (I only know this because my husband, aka my father-in-law’s sole offspring and heir, watches him from the house through binoculars, hoping for clues as to where his father’s secret mushrooming spot is.  Because he’s never been told.)

Not only are you faithful to your spot because you know it to be a particularly fertile one, but also because the toxicity of many mushrooms can be very terroir specific.  Meaning, to you novices out there, that a mushroom which is perfectly good to eat in one part of Umbria may be slightly toxic in another based on soil chemistry.  So, not only is it good to know your ‘shroom, but it’s also good to know your dirt.

Kitted Out

You gotta have a basket.  Because it looks more folksy than a plastic shopping bag from the Eurospin Discount and because the Man says you have to have a basket so spores can fall out and re-seed the forest floor.  You gotta have a little pocket knife.   Because any excuse is a good one to have a cool little pocket knife and because the Man says you have to have a little knife so you can leave a small piece of mushroom on the ground when you pick it to keep the forest floor producing.  You gotta have one of those vests with about 17 pockets commonly worn by fishermen and the homeless.  Because that seems to be the uniform.  I don’t think the Man has anything to do with it, but everyone seems to have gotten the memo.  You gotta have a permit (if you’re not a resident).   Because the Man needs his tax money.  This I only found out because once my husband and I were surprised by a Forest Service jeep on one of the rare times we’ve strayed from our own special spot ( I acquired rights by marriage), and my husband hissed, “Hit the deck!”  Which I did, and commenced to combat crawl to the nearest ditch, where I hissed, “Why are we hiding?”  “Because we don’t have a permit for Valtopina!”  “How expensive could the fine possibly be?”  “Who cares about the fine?!?  They’ll confiscate our mushrooms!”

An official basket. Note the mushroom to leaf/dirt ratio. A seasoned mushroomer doesn't waste time cleaning off the prey while foraging.

The Pecking Order

There are mushrooms and then there are mushrooms.  Based on their flavor, use, and how common they are, different mushrooms carry different street cred to a real connoisseur.  One of the thrills of foraging is meeting back up at home with everyone else who has gone out hunting for the afternoon and dumping the contents of your basket with the air of a poker player showing his hand.  As each basket is dumped, the contents are examined and there is inevitably an air of The Gambler as winners and losers are made around the table.

Use your imagination...it could seem like little hands reaching out of the ground.

The pecking order also loosely follows the altitude at which they are found.  Pinaroli, which grow in clumps under certain conifers, can be found even on the valley floor and are considered a last resort mushroom, to be picked solely in case of emergency—i.e. the shame of returning home with a completely empty basket.  Working your way up the mountain, Manine (they carry this nickname because with a little squinting and a lot of creative imagination these vaguely coral-shaped mushrooms might resemble little hands) come next…relatively mild flavored and best used in pasta sauce.  When you start coming home with a basket full of Lardelli, Carpinelli, Biscetti, Peperoni, and Biette, you can hold your head high.  These are flavorful mushrooms which can be roasted over the coals or conserved in oil for antipasti during the winter. Gallinelli (chanterelles) and Porcini are, of course, the reigning kings of mushrooms and two nicely sized Porcini and a handful of Gallinelli will trump an entire basketful of mushrooms from a lower suit.  These are wonderful in risotto or simply sauteéd with olive oil and garlic.   But just one Turino, rare and found only at the highest points of the pre-Appenine hills, will shame all the rest.  This tender, snowy-white mushroom is so flavorful (and digestible) that you can eat it raw, sliced paper-thin and dressed with nothing more than a few drops of olive oil.

These Porcini trump almost anything else

Don’t Be a Hero

The stakes are high when foraging, and I’m not talking about pride.  Every mushroomer I know has a story that runs somewhere along the spectrum from death, to near death, to permanent liver damage, to seriously ill, to minor-ahem-plumbing problems.  Only life-long foragers who are very familiar with the local terrain should be trusted to separate the edible from the lethal; even after all these years of mushrooming I have the contents of my basket carefully checked before eating them.  I have had an entire basket of good mushrooms tossed because I had inadvertantly picked a mushroom so toxic that simply the contact of carrying it in the same basket put the others at risk of contamination.  And the risk is never worth it.  Believe me.  When they’re good, they’re very, very good.  But when they’re bad, their deadly.

Friend or foe? Ask an expert.

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