Entering into the local coffee shop for an after-dinner coffee, we saw our friend, elbow on the bar and tiny coffee cup in hand.
‘Come va? How are you?’, we enquired.
‘Bene. I’m well ? for now’, he enigmatically replied.
‘Are you expecting an illness?’, we enquired.
‘No, no’, he said, shaking his head. ‘I just ate dinner, and you never know how that can turn out!’, he replied, patting his stomach.
Whilst this may seem a strange conversation, our friend is a well-known mushroom hunter. He knows (although is unlikely to reveal it) the best places in the surrounding countryside to find all kinds of wild-growing mushrooms.
He also grows his own fruits and vegetables, has an olive grove for olive oil production, and also fishes and hunts. It is very typical in the Tuscan countryside to find people who still live off the land almost entirely.
This particular evening however, he explained to us that he had found, and then cooked, a type of mushroom he had never encountered before.
‘Large as a newborn, it was!’, he told us.
As we left the coffee shop, we patted our friend on the shoulder, wished him well, and left with an ‘alla prossima’ (the Italian way of saying, ‘until next time’). ‘Si spera’, he replied ? ‘One hopes!’
All mushrooms are in fact toxic, but in small doses are harmless (and delicious!). However some types can cause illness or even death.
Porcini mushrooms are the most prized mushroom variety. When in season, you can buy them fresh in produce markets, supermarkets, and road-side stalls. You can also buy them dried, to then be soaked in water to rehydrate and then cook.
Fresh porcini can be served with pasta or used in risotto dishes, or to accompany a main meal. As an appetiser they can even be thinly sliced, drizzled with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice to have ‘Carpaccio di Porcini’.
The next day, we passed our mushroom hunter friend on the street, alive and as joyful as ever. ‘Obviously no harmful effects then?’ we remarked. ‘No, no, not this time,’ he said, ‘But you never know, you never know’.
Here is a Tessa Kiros recipe for ‘Funghi sott’olio’ (Mushrooms preserved in olive oil).
Makes about three 330 ml preserving jars
This is ideal to make when mushrooms are plentiful. You can use one type of mushroom here, or a combination. Serve them as part of a mixed antipasto.
1 kg fresh wild mushrooms such as porcini, chanterelles or ovuli
500 ml white wine vinegar
250 ml white wine
a few sage leaves
a few small sprigs of rosemary
3 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
3 small dried red chillies, left whole
a few bay leaves
olive oil to cover the mushrooms in the jars
Rinse the mushrooms and pat dry. Cut them into slices or chunks.
Put the vinegar, wine, sage and rosemary into a saucepan. Season well with salt and bring to the boil. Add the mushrooms (in batches if necessary). When the liquid comes back to the boil, wait 3 minutes, then lift out the mushrooms with a slotted spoon. Put them onto a clean, dry cloth and pat dry. Pack them into clean, sterilised jars with the garlic, chilli, whole peppercorns and bay leaves divided between the jars.
Completely cover with oil. Push the mushrooms down with a fork to force out any air bubbles and close the lid tightly.
Store in a cool dark place. They will be ready in about 3 weeks but will last may months, provided they remain completely covered wit h the oil. Once opened, store in the refrigerator and consume quickly. The remaining oil can be used to dress salads and vegetables.