Mushroom Foraging on Monte Argentario

Acquacotta

Excerpted with permission from Acquacotta by Emiko Davies, published by Hardie Grant Books March 2017, RRP $40.00 hardcover. Purchase your copy on Amazon.


B

y the end of summer I’m ready for a change. Don’t get me wrong. I love nothing more than being barefoot. I love eating fresh peaches and melons for lunch, jammy figs or gelato as snacks, and I adore ripe, squidgy tomatoes with olive oil for dinner. But after a particularly hot summer, I’m ready for a chill in the air, for wearing scarves and hats, and indulging in a warming cup of tea in the afternoon. Seeing mushrooms is the hint that that’s all soon to come.

By August, mushroom gatherers have already got a plan to andare a funghi in the chestnut and oak woods looking for late-summer funghi, which will then be used in soup, tossed with pappardelle, or layered on top of crostini (recipe below).

Umberto, a friend who lives in Porto Ercole, is a hairdresser by trade but moonlights as a mushroom forager and fisherman – like many Maremmans. He shows me the photographs of his latest mushroom haul – what looks like hundreds of porcini spread out over and filling the top of a large table. He doesn’t even like porcini, but his friends do, so he picks them, bags them and freezes them or gives them away.

When I ask him how he learned how to identify and know where to find wild mushrooms, he looks at me as if I just asked him how he learned to walk and talk. He shrugs, but then responds that it’s from going foraging with his family as a child, and then later while going hunting with friends – you’d spot the mushrooms as you were walking through the forest.

He doesn’t have to go far to find them; they are everywhere if you know how and where to look for them. Sometimes Umberto spots mushrooms on the way to his daughter’s preschool and will return with bags of them on the back of the motorino.

Monte Argentario is full of rich, serene and unique Mediterranean forest and scrub. Not only do the wild boars love it, but the mushrooms do too – in the right season, they’re prolific, especially when the right amount of rain follows the summer. Once an ancient island, now joined to the mainland by the sandy, pine-covered dunes of Feniglia and Giannella, Argentario has a unique mixture of plant life, which Umberto is convinced makes the mushrooms more delicious and more aromatic than anything he has ever tasted on the mainland. Here, he collects mushrooms under cork trees, corbezzolo (Irish strawberry trees) and erica (heather), rather than the more commonplace oaks of inland Maremma, and there’s no doubt this rich combination of plant life contributes to beautifully fragrant and tasty mushrooms.

Before going mushroom picking you should not only be armed with a good, illustrated book on local mushrooms, but if you are a novice, make sure you have an expert with you as well. An illustrated book is not the only way to help you choose the right mushrooms; note that toxic mushrooms will often let you know by sight and smell that they are not for eating. There are some types of boletus (porcini-related) that you cannot mistake for being poisonous, thanks to their unusual colors: they have red stems and when you cut into them the flesh of the mushrooms turn blue. Similarly, the fairytale bright red, white-spotted mushrooms are to be avoided. Often a toxic mushroom also has an unpleasant, harsh smell – the kind of smell that you don’t want to put in your mouth. Nature has its way of telling you. Good mushrooms should smell wonderful: earthy, nutty, but more specifically like almonds or amaretti, sometimes like flour, uncooked bread dough, butter, aniseed or even honey. In Tuscany, if you are not a resident in the area where you are foraging, you need to obtain a permit. You will also need clothes that cover arms and legs, gloves and a basket (not a plastic bag – the spores of the mushrooms should be able to fall through the cracks in the basket, to help the continuity of mushrooms growing in the area).


KNOW YOUR MUSHROOMS


CAESAR’S MUSHROOMS

Ovoli (Amanita caesarea) These beautiful mushrooms start out looking like round, bright vermillion-orange eggs (hence their Italian name, which means ‘egg’). But then they grow with a long thin stem holding up a deep-orange umbrella-like top with lemon-yellow gills. They like to grow in the shade of oak and chestnut trees, and do particularly well after a very hot summer. The best way to eat the young, egg-shaped ones is raw, thinly sliced, with olive oil. When cooked, these rusty-orange capped mushrooms give out a beautiful yolk-colored sauce, looking almost like it is spiced with saffron. Ancient Romans were as fond of these as their modern counterparts, hence their name in English. It is even thought that the Roman armies helped distribute this native Italian mushroom north of the peninsula as they are still found along ancient Roman routes. Although it’s not hard to see the difference, note that there is a related mushroom that is toxic (it is not deadly but will cause highly unpleasant results if you eat it). Amanita muscaria looks in all ways similar except for the color – deep red caps with little white or beige spots just like a fairy toadstool. The most deadly of all mushrooms, the aptly named ‘Death Cap’ (Amanita phalloides) is a common mushroom with a similar form but, again, color will help you distinguish them (these have a greenish-tinted cap). They are rarely found in mountains, but do like to grow near oak and cork trees.

CHANTERELLE MUSHROOMS

Galletti (Cantharellus cibarius) Pretty, yolk-yellow chanterelle mushrooms are sweet and delicate – and excellent prepared with calamari or with pasta. These mushrooms take on different characteristics depending on the trees you find them under.

MONK’S HEAD

Ordinali (Clitocybe geotropa or Infundibulicybe geotropa) These are highly prized mushrooms that go by many a name. In English they’re known as trooping funnel or monk’s head. In Argentario they’re also known as cardarelle, named after the shape of its cap, which opens up to the sky like the traditional buckets used by muratori (builders). They also go by funghi di san Martino or cimballo (for their cymbal-like shape) and even Maremmano, which is self-explanatory. Cream-colored with a sturdy stem, they grow in rings (‘fairy rings’ as we say; Italians call them ‘witches circles’) in fields, where their presence makes the grass greener. Look for young ones, which have an intense, nutty aroma. Some say you can cook these in place of truffles, such is their strong, pleasant scent. They’re good for roasting, stewing (Umberto likes adding them to a sugo) or preserving in oil.

PARASOL MUSHROOM

Bubbola or Mazza di tamburo (Macrolepiota procera or Lepiota procera) These mushrooms have a delicate flavor and slender stems bearing a shaggy parasol top that can grow to the size of a dinner plate. When you find them with the top still closed, much like an umbrella shut tight, these are particularly good roasted (cook them well; they are slightly toxic in their raw state). A very similar mushroom known as the shaggy parasol (Lepiota rhacodes or Chlorophyllum rhacodes) is like a miniature version of the bubbola that grows in beds of fallen needles from fir trees. Note that this mushroom is very similar to a number of toxic ones: lepiota cristata, or false mazza di tamburo and, in North America, Chlorophyllum molybdites (the ‘false parasol’).

PORCINI

(Boletus edulis) The king of mushrooms barely needs an introduction; they are the most prized, of course, and the most used in traditional dishes. With a unique aroma and flavor, these are found mostly in autumn in pine forests but Porcini estivi (Boletus aestivalis) can be found (as their name hints) in summer, growing under chestnuts, oak and beech trees. Like the galletti, they’re wonderful prepared with calamari.

WEEPING BOLETE

Pinaioli/Pinaroli (Boletus granulatus or Suillus granulatus) Named for their special attachment to pine trees, under which they grow, these mushrooms have a shiny cap, which is sticky when wet and pale-yellow, sweet flesh. Remove the stalks and peel the cap before eating and then try them sliced and deep-fried or preserved in oil as in Carciofini Sott’olio.


Mushroom Recipes



CROSTINI DI POLENTA CON I FUNGHI

POLENTA CROSTINI WITH MUSHROOMS

The hard work goes into preparing this firm polenta, but once it is cooked and set (which can be done well in advance) you only need to slice it, then grill, bake or fry the polenta slices to crisp them up. Polenta, or ground cornmeal, is naturally free of gluten so these make a wonderful crostini alternative with just about any kind of topping – but they are particularly good with something juicy like ragu or this mushroom topping.

In Italy, polenta generally comes in three different types: bramata, which has a coarse grain, and is good for making a firmer polenta; fioretto, a fine-grain cornmeal, ideal for soft, creamy polenta or for baking cakes or biscuits; and instant polenta. The instant variety is partially cooked, then dried again, and takes just minutes to prepare. What you make up for in time, however, you’ll lose in flavor and texture (much like quick cooking rice). I find it’s only really useful for baking into cakes if you can’t get the finer ground fioretto.

MAKES ABOUT 18 CROSTINI

Ingredients:

  • 300 g (10 1/2 oz) coarse-ground polenta (such as bramata)
  • olive oil for greasing and/or drizzling (optional)

MUSHROOM TOPPING

  • 500 g (1 lb 2 oz) mushrooms
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 handful herbs, such as calamint or thyme
  • salt and pepper

Directions:

  1. To prepare the polenta crostini, cook the polenta in 1 litre (34 fl oz / 4 cups) of water and a good pinch of salt in a large non-stick saucepan over the lowest heat for about 30–40 minutes to create a very dense, very thick polenta. Use a wooden spoon to stir regularly – not constantly, but you want to give it a good mix every couple of minutes. It may help to have another pair of hands to take over when your arms get tired. If big bubbles start emerging in the polenta, remove it from the heat for a minute, then continue. When you think the polenta is ready, taste it – it should not taste floury or feel grainy. It should have a soft and creamy texture.
  2. Take out a baking tray or a shallow casserole dish, about 21 x 30 cm (8 1/4 x 12 in). Line it with baking paper or grease it with olive oil. When the polenta has cooked, transfer it to the baking tray. Quickly (as it sets fast), press the polenta down with a silicone spatula – or with damp hands if it’s not too hot – spreading it out as you go, until it is about 1.5 cm (1/2 in) thick, and smooth and even on top. Put the tray in the fridge if you have space, but the benchtop is fine if you don’t. Once completely cool and set, cut the polenta into rectangular slices approximately 5 x 7 cm (2 x 2 3/4 in). This can all be done in advance.
  3. When ready to serve, there are many ways to prepare the polenta slices – ideally you want them golden, crisp and crunchy outside and warm and soft inside. To bake, place the polenta slices on a baking tray lined with baking paper, drizzle with a little olive oil and bake for approximately 20 minutes at 200°C (400°F) until they are golden. Alternatively, you can brush them with a bit of olive oil and then grill, sear or even barbecue them until golden, or deep-fry them in hot oil.
  4. In the meantime, prepare the mushroom topping. Cut off the ends of the stems, clean the caps gently of any dirt with some paper towel and slice thinly. Flatten the garlic cloves with the back of a knife and place in a frying pan with the olive oil over medium heat. Let the olive oil infuse with the garlic for 2 minutes, then add the mushrooms and cook until soft. The type of mushrooms you use will dictate how long this takes, but most will be ready in under 5 minutes. Remove the garlic cloves, add the fresh herbs and season with salt and pepper.
  5. Top the hot crostini with the warm mushroom mixture and serve immediately.

SUBSTITUTIONS

Use any mushroom you like for this; a mixture of different types is even better than just one kind. Calamint (Nepitella in Italian) is a wild herb that likes to grow in cracks along less-travelled paths or in tufts, hidden in the grass, only revealing itself with a strong, sweet, minty perfume when trodden on. It’s the favorite herb to partner with mushrooms in Tuscany. If you can’t find it, you can use a mixture of marjoram or oregano and mint or just substitute it completely with thyme, which is also very nice with mushrooms.



BAVETTE AL BRANZINO

BAVETTE WITH SEA BASS RAGU

Sea bass, or branzino or spigola in Italian, is found on menus everywhere around Argentario and Orbetello – the main reason is the lagoon situated between these two places, which is the source of Italy’s most famous and best-regarded farmed sea bass. The lagoon is also the source of sea bream, eels and grey mullet, which are used in a number of traditional dishes.

Farming fish has been a tradition in these parts since ancient Roman times. Just minutes away, off Giannella, the sandbar that blocks off Orbetello’s lagoon to the sea to the north, there is a small beach known as Bagni di Domiziano, where you can find the ruins of a Roman villa that date to 36 BC. During low tide, you can just make out the partially submerged ruins of the stone pools used to raise sea bass and grey mullet. According to The Twelve Caesars – the famous biographies of twelve Roman emperors, written in AD 121 by Suetonius – the Roman Emperor Nero spent childhood summers at this villa, tending to the fish, which were fed a diet of prawns (shrimp), mussels, crabs, corbezzoli (fruit from the strawberry tree) and figs, to make them exceptionally tasty. Nero’s was a family of noble bankers, who owned the whole of Monte Argentario – the promontory probably takes its name from this history, as argentario was the name for ‘money lenders’.

Bavette are a typical Ligurian pasta shape – flat, narrow but thick. You can use any pasta with this, but it is nice with something long and thin like square-cut or regular spaghetti or tagliolini.

SERVES 4

Ingredients:

  • 400 g (14 oz) sea bass fillets
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small brown (yellow) onion, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 large handful flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, stalks separated and roughly chopped, leaves finely chopped
  • 125 ml (4 fl oz / 1/2 cup) dry white wine
  • 1 tomato (or handful cherry tomatoes), chopped
  • 250 ml (8 1/2 fl oz/1 cup) fish stock
  • 320 g (11 1/2 oz) dried bavette, or 400 g (14 oz) fresh bavette (or spaghetti or tagliolini)

NOTE

If buying a whole fish to fillet yourself, you will need double the weight of the fillets. Save the heads and bones for making fish stock.

Directions:

  1. Cut the fish fillets into 1.5 cm (1/2 in) cubes. Set aside.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over low heat and add the onion, garlic and parsley stalks. Season with a pinch of salt and cook gently for about 10–15 minutes, until the onion ‘sweats’ and is softened but not coloured (add a splash of water if needed).
  3. Put a large pot of well-salted water on to boil for the pasta.
  4. Pour the white wine over the onion mixture and turn the heat up to medium. Let it simmer for 2 minutes, then add the tomato and stock and cook for a further 10 minutes. Add the diced fish and continue cooking for 5 more minutes. Remove from the heat.
  5. When the water is boiling, add the pasta and cook until al dente (refer to the packaging for the cooking time). Drain, reserving about 60 ml (2 fl oz / 1/4 cup) of the cooking water if needed. Add the pasta and the chopped parsley leaves to the fish ragu, and toss to combine. If you need some extra liquid to bring it all together, add some of the reserved cooking water.
  6. Serve immediately.

VARIATIONS

This dish is often made using whole fish, cooked directly in the pan with the onion, garlic, parsley and white wine. It is then removed, so the bones, head and tail can be discarded, and the meat picked over before being returned to the pan. It’s a nice way of making a fish ragu, as using the entire fish adds good flavour and you don’t need the stock if you do it this way. Using fillets makes this easy (and a little less messy), and if you have filleted the fish yourself, you can use the head and bones for a homemade Fish Stock (see below). Red mullet, tub gurnard or sea bream are also good prepared this way.


FISH STOCK

MAKES 1 LITRE (34 FL OZ / 4 CUPS)

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 300–500 g (10 1/2 oz–1 lb 2 oz) fish head, bones and tail
  • 1 brown (yellow) onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
  • 1 carrot, roughly chopped

Heat the olive oil in a soup pot over medium–high heat. Sear the fish bones and head for 1–2 minutes – this will bring out extra flavour. Add the vegetables and continue cooking for 1 minute, then pour over 1.5 litres (51 fl oz/6 cups) of cold water.

Bring to the boil, then turn down to low and simmer for 30 minutes, uncovered. Remove from the heat and strain through a fine-meshed sieve.

This makes a little over 1 litre (34 fl oz/4 cups) of stock, which you can use instead of water for any fish soups, stews or pasta sauces. It also freezes well.


 

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