SARONNO, Italy - October is mushroom month in Italy. A variety of wild mushrooms, most of them gathered locally, have started showing up in the weekly outdoor food markets. If you have never cooked fresh, wild mushrooms, you are in for a real treat, for the difference in taste between cultivated mushrooms and freshly picked wild ones is enormous.
Going hunting for funghi di bosco (woodland mushrooms) or funghi selvatici (wild mushrooms) is one of the joys of the season. There is something very satisfying about picking your own food from the wild. I still remember how much fun it was to go blueberry picking in the woods with my Aunt Florence and my Aunt Adele when I was a kid. No matter that we got home exhausted, scratched and bleeding, the buckets of blueberries we collected made it all worthwhile. I imagine going mushroom hunting must be a lot like that, but without the bramble bushes.
The downside of picking wild mushrooms is that you really have to know what mushrooms to pick and which to leave behind. Even a small taste of some types can make you deathly ill, or in some cases deathly dead. Almost all small towns in the mushroom picking areas of Italy, like Giaveno, up near Torino in the Province of Piedmonte, have experts who can help you separate the good from the bad. Even here in Saronno there is a mushroom “club”, I think it’s called Amici di Funghi, that you can turn to to check your pickings.
|Fungo Festa in Gaiveno (Piedmont)|
These days you need a permit to gather mushrooms and there are strict limits on the amount you are allowed to pick. In addition, it is essential to use a straw basket to hold the mushrooms you are gathering. The porous construction of wicker baskets allows the mushroom spores from the collected mushrooms to fall to the ground and insures their continued reproduction for the following season. The easiest way to prepare wild mushrooms, or any mushrooms for that matter, is to saute’ or braise them in olive oil, garlic, white wine and chopped parsley. Mushrooms prepared this way are called funghi trifolati and can be served with any kind of mean, including game, or served with polenta, pasta or risotto.
|Clean, cut porcini, heat garlic, butter and olive oil|
|Cut and slice the rest of the mushrooms|
|Cook over high heat, add wine, then parsley|
During mushroom season many restaurants offer grilled porcini mushrooms. It’s easy to grill porcini, especially the large ones which can be as big as a small steak. Large or small, it’s also a good idea to cook them, all types of mushrooms actually, as soon as possible as fresh mushrooms don’t hold up well. As mushrooms are extremely porous they shouldn’t be washed. Just cut the dirt off the bottom of the stem and wipe the cap with a dry paper towel. Because they are so porous, they should be cooked over a medium high flame and not on a low flame in order to reduce the amount of liquid they shed.
When you buy dried porcini or other dried mushrooms, look for a natural and healthy color—avoid those that look too dark or have an artificial-looking color. If possible, choose bags full of sliced tops (caps), which are the tastiest part of the mushroom. Don’t buy them if they look old, are broken apart or, even worse, almost pulverized. Spend a little more and get the best quality—it’s definitely worth it.