Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mostly Mushrooms

We spent a glorious autumn day last Sunday in the hills outside Viterbo and the town of Bassano Romano where Claudia, the head of housekeeping here at the AAR, grew up and has an uncle who excels in the mycological arts. I’ve never been mushroom foraging before and was eager to join the Rome Sustainable Food Project (RSFP) kitchen crew on their group outing and also get the kids out of Rome and into the campagna. Mind you, I firmly believe that no dish is so good that it warrants the risk of spending the rest of our year abroad on life support awaiting new livers (imagine the paperwork here alone!), but I considered our chances of surviving any subsequent funghi-based repast to be extremely good given that we were to be in the hands of an established expert -- and the fact that this was a repeat visit to Zio Vincenzo’s farm.

Notwithstanding my mother’s email that same morning imploring me in all caps to “AVOID ABSOLUTELY ALL MUSHROOMS!” we may happen upon in the wild, there also were plenty of cautionary tales of overconfident amateurs to bear in mind. I’ve read scores of stories of recent immigrants to the Bay Area dropping dead after ingesting what they thought looked like a trusted fungus back home (typically China it seems) thriving in the mist of Marin County, so yes, I remained circumspect, but my curiosity and desire to participate in the hunt ultimately won out. I resolved on the ride up that if our guide wasn’t a stooped and wizened native with some trace of facial hair (and that stipulation applied to female foragers as well), or if s/he relied on a field guide to identify questionable candidates, I was prepared to politely decline the porcini bruschetta no matter how good it smelled coming off the make-shift grill. I wouldn’t deign to try any mushroom we picked that wasn’t vetted by a local who looked at least as old as the surrounding terroir.

As luck would have it, Zio Vincenzo (pictured at left) fit the bill and reassured the novitiates with his sparkling elfin-blue eyes, infrequent speech and forthright manner. We were handed buckets within minutes of our arrival and set to our task forthwith. The way he wielded his perfectly smooth and gnarled walking stick reinforced that we were in the calloused hands of a seasoned authority who had clearly been savoring the subtleties of spore-borne specialties long before any of us were born. Any remaining traces of lingering fear were obliterated by the reassuring presence of his smiling wife (who appeared very much alive as well) and three playful kittens that followed faithfully behind us as we clambered through the native oak and chestnut forest in search of its damp delicacies. Here’s a shot of the calico tagging along with the kids as we enjoyed the fresh breezes and dappled autumn light.

Once we returned with our ample catch (pull?) of large, umbrella-shaped massa tamboras, delicate clusters of bright yellow chiodinis and stocky porcinis, we enjoyed a hearty antipasto spread and convivial pranzo of Zia’s beans and sausages with a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and savored some of Mona and Mirella’s exceptional cookies for dessert. Interestingly, no funghi were served (probably because our hosts had refrained from picking any beforehand in anticipation of our arrival and they didn’t want to analyze our harvest on an empty pancia). I of course had to continually implore the kids to eat while the kittens mounted their cuteness assault against the patio windows. I couldn't recall any news stories of children starving to death because they forgot to eat while playing with cats so I gave in and excused them from the table after three bites of sausage.

Following our post prandial espresso, Zia filled the gatti’s bowl with the leftover fagioli and we headed out to reassess our treasures. I was careful to refrain from sorting any buckets myself lest an errant entophyte picked by an over zealous neophyte get past Zio’s careful eye and result in the demise of an esteemed fellow or two back at the Academy at lunch on Monday. “Fatal Fungi Fells Fellows Following Fossicking Fieldtrip” might have been the headline a few of us had in mind as we ceded the sorting table to those more experienced. Zio and Mona set to work and meticulously picked over our collective harvest while the rest of us snapped photos of them in action and the kids continued to practice their burgeoning kitten-carrying techniques. We headed back to Roma in the Academy van with several crates of the freshest funghi available and fond memories of a particularly exceptional day. Grazie a tutti!

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