It is approaching the end of the mushroom season, so some of my Italian friends escape as often as they can in search of the final crops of fresh porcini mushrooms in the woods around the Tuscan region of Maremma .
Previously the Maremma was one of the most dangerous parts of Tuscany due to the mal aria – and the disease malaria – arising from the mosquitos swarming around the swamps. Hunting in this area was blamed for the death of two of the children of Grand Duke Cosimo I – and this sudden loss of Giovanni and Garcia, her favourite sons, within the same week, probably also caused the death of his already depressed wife, Eleonora di Toledo, within a few days of her children.
This region has since become , largely due to the huge efforts to clear the swamps supported by Mussolini’s re-employment plans in the 30s, one of the most fertile parts of Tuscany.
This is also the area where all the animals live!
So many people have asked me – “But where are all the sheep that are needed make such tasty pecorino, and the cows for the famous bistecca fiorentino? Well, it is true that they are not close at hand, but they are not kept hidden in barns all year, but roam the fertile lands in the Maremmo and also the hills of Casentino.
Getting back to Mushroom picking in Maremma – I have to admit that I enjoyed my trip to the countryside, but the first few hours were a mind boggling experience for a towny like me.
An early start is essential – leaving Florence ideally before 5.30am and following a long line of single occupant cars also travelling in the dark through the countryside to their own “posto segretto” – everyone having their own favourite spot that they believe nobody else knows about, except perhaps the inevitabile cinghiale (wild boar) who seem to get to everything fresh before the owners thereof – even the grapes – diving thick-skinned through the electric fences just as soon as the sangiovese fruits are ripe enough to make wine!
They make huge holes in the ground as they snuffle around for something delicious, but they seem to mainly forage at night and dissolve into the morning mist once the humans start their early morning rummage!
Before the long walk to the “posto segretto” the cacciatore (hunters) need fortification, so in the dark early hours of the morning one goes to a huge pastry shop – in both senses of the description – it is a large place and it really does sell fill-your-face croissants and pastries!
At this time of the morning during the working week the clientele are all male , aged well over 60, all dressed in khaki camofluage in the style of Rambo and mostly having extremely viscious looking knives attached to their belts – “What? ….Do these ferocious fungi fight back?”
I felt decidedly out of place in Armani jeans and flat shoes, and for the first time a little uneasy – perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to set off into woods filled with well armed men? However, they were all very amused by the Donna Inglese attempting to learn about their sport so inappropriately dressed and without so much as a sword stick.
So long as I didn’t try and come near their “posto segretto”, I was assured that I would have no trouble from them!
In turn I assured them that their fungi would be perfectly safe from me – I wouldn’t even be able to recognise a good mushroom if it jumped up and said “Eat me!” – but at least when I was in the wood I was able to see that some of them looked particularly velenoso (poisonous) – and indeed , I had no urge to touch, let alone pick, anything that looked as if it might try to eat me if I went anywhere near it!
I did learn from seeing the two slightly nibbled examples that my companion did manage to find that the delicious porcini mushrooms could be identified by their spongy undersides –
– not in the least like a UK field mushroom with it’s grey-black lined underside, which I had been taught could be considered safe if you could peel the skin off, I was also warned that it’s nearest equivalent out here is actually one of the dangerous ones.
So here below is my entire collection – bolstered by plastic gloves, a chestnut and an acorn I still couldn’t cover half of the base of the basket – How pathetic is that?
Let’s just say it was good to get out in the countryside for a few hours – and build up an appetite for lunch!
And see below the treat of the day –
These are not powdered truffles but cavallucci – a sweet white dolce of yummy spongy, aniseed biscuits, with walnuts, figs and chopped orange peel and other candied fruit.