Wild Mushrooms in Italy - Kitchen Tips & Recipe Ideas
Cooking with wild mushrooms, or funghi, is an experience you must have - whether you add them to sauces and stews or enjoy them as toppings on salads and foccacia. Our Italian writer gives us insight on "hunting" them, as well as tips for using them in the kitchen.
By Piergiorgio and Amy Nicoletti
Cooking with fresh wild mushrooms is an experience you really must try at least once. The difference in taste between cultivated mushrooms and the wild ones is huge. For most of us, cooking with wild mushrooms is a luxury—like tasting truffles—but for the lucky few, funghi di bosco or funghi selvatici are an abundant and common ingredient in daily cuisine. In Italy, gathering wild mushrooms—andar a funghi—is common practice due to the favorable geographic conditions; the Alps and Apennine mountains are flourishing grounds for the most popular mushrooms. A love of the outdoors and a passion for the “hunt” are essential aspects of mushroom gathering, which also requires an intimate familiarity with the territory and expert knowledge about the mushrooms themselves—recognizing the most sought after varieties and discerning the poisonous types. The fact that the adventure contains this slight whiff of danger is part of the allure, spawning a kind of cult of wild mushroom enthusiasts with a whole social and gastronomical culture of its own.
Of course, whether you come back from a mushroom hunt laden with treasures or empty-handed, it is part of the thrill of the adventure. The peak season for mushroom gathering in most areas of Italy is from April to early November, but this varies from region to region. For instance, in southern Italy—in the rich forests of Abruzzo and Molise, Basilicata, and Calabria as well as parts of Sicily—wild mushrooms can still be gathered until late in December, and ever after that.
Weather conditions are the key factor in producing a good mushroom season, which requires a perfect combination of rain, sun, warmth and humidity. Some years are remembered for generations afterward for their abundance of mushrooms; other years yield practically nothing, mostly for lack of rain. An early frost can abruptly interrupt an otherwise promising season. Another determining factor in whether or not your hunt will be fruitful is the particular area in which you are searching. Some species of mushrooms—such as porcini or boletus, pioppini (delicious mushrooms that grow on old poplars), russulas, morels, and chanterelles—are common in some regions and unknown in others. Chestnut, pine, oak and beech forests are the ideal habitats for many of these funghi. The local inhabitants always know which mushrooms to pick up and which to leave—meaning which ones are inedible or even worse, poisonous.
In Italy, it’s now necessary to buy a permit to gather mushrooms, and there are strict limits to the amount you are allowed. If you have any doubts about the mushrooms you’ve gathered, in most of the towns or villages near wooded areas, the local doctors and pharmacists will examine them free of charge. Needless to say, it is essential that you are 100% sure that whatever you put on your plate is edible. The ingestion of a mere ounce of some varieties of mushrooms can be deadly; other varieties are toxic enough to make you ill—but fortunately the large majority of wild mushrooms are not only edible, but exquisite (and even good for you!)
A Few Suggestions:
• It’s important to use baskets when gathering mushrooms because some materials such as plastic will quickly damage them.
• Mushrooms must look healthy, with no holes or worms.
• Though they need to be cleaned of dirt, leaves, pine needles and so on, in most cases, mushrooms should not be washed before cooking. Eliminate the dirt at the bottom of the stems with the help of a paring knife. Some remaining dirt on the cap can be delicately brushed off with a cloth.
• Wild mushrooms perish quickly, though some varieties, like porcini, last a bit longer. Nonetheless, they should be cleaned and cooked as soon as you can. What cannot be consumed at once should be cleaned and then left to dry, or preserved in olive oil and vinegar, or frozen—depending on the variety, they may need to be blanched first. Again, the sooner you do all this, the better.
• Most wild mushrooms must be cooked before consumption; only a few can be eaten raw—like ovuli buoni (Amanita caesarea) or porcini, which can be sliced with a very sharp knife and are delicious in salads. These funghi and just a few others also can be grilled, instead of being thoroughly cooked.
• Be aware that some species should be boiled before cooking them and the water should be thrown away.
• Some other types of funghi—like gambesecche (Marasmius oreades)—are too hard to chew even if properly cooked, but they are picked anyway because when they are dried and later pulverized in a food processor, they are excellent as an addition to braised and roasted meat, or in ragout and pasta sauces.
• In Italy, wild mushrooms are dried at home, often using the wooden crates used for transporting fruits and vegetables. Finferle (chanterelles), sliced porcini, chiodini (honey fungus), prataioli (field mushrooms) and other mushrooms are spread out in these boxes and left to dry in high, fairly sunny and warm places, such as in the garden, or on windowsills and balconies. Sometimes more sophisticated raffia or large straw containers are used. The best methods allow for air circulation below the container. Depending on the humidity, in two or three days the mushrooms are usually ready to be put away in glass jars or propylene bags. Most importantly, keep them in a dry place—humidity is the enemy of all dried mushrooms.
• When you purchase 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 (hats), which are the tastier part of the mushroom. Don’t buy them if they look old—that is, broken apart or, even worse, almost pulverized. Spend a little more and get the best quality—it’s definitely worth it.
• It is important to revive dried mushrooms—ravvivare as we say in Italy— before using them in the kitchen. Depending on the variety (for instance, porcini are quite soft), you should normally soak them in lukewarm water for about 30 minutes or less. Some cooks use broth, but we recommend using just plain water in order not to alter the mushroom’s natural flavor. First, break the larger, tougher pieces with your hands, then submerge them all in a bowl of lukewarm tap water. After soaking, the mushrooms will float to the top, making it easy to remove them; then, lay them out on a plate, pressing them slightly.
Save the water where the mushrooms have been soaking—slowly pour it into another bowl, leaving behind the sand and dirt at the bottom. If you don’t plan to immediately use this water, you can pour it into an ice tray and use the frozen cubes for months—they’ll add a nutty mushroom flavor to your sauces.
After regaining their water, revived dry mushrooms can be used in a variety of dishes: pasta sauces, baked pasta, and soups, as well as different sauces for tender pork loin, beef tournedos or buttery veal scaloppine ai funghi. Just remember to handle them gently when you adding to a sauce or soup.
In the Kitchen
Most of the edible species of wild mushrooms can be sautéed, or braised, in the classic Italian way known as funghi trifolati, using olive oil, garlic, parsley and white wine. Mushrooms prepared in this way can be the base for many other recipes (see below). Apart from enjoying them as a contorno (side dish) with meat, one of the oldest and most typical ways to serve funghi trifolati is with polenta and formaggio di malga, a fresh, light, and very tasty cow cheese produced in the same areas where the mushrooms are found. (Note: Some cooks don’t use wine, and others use shallots instead of garlic, or a combination of both. Tomatoes, when desired, should be used only sparingly as their taste tends to be overwhelming.)
Wild mushrooms are used in an infinite variety of dishes, starting with antipasti, where they are sometimes served raw in salads, or preserved in olive oil and white vinegar as an accompaniment to salumi. But often, wild mushrooms are the main or only ingredient in pasta and filled-pasta dishes, such as tagliatelle or fettuccine ai funghi. Another great example is pasticcio di funghi, which is made with meat- or ricotta-filled pasta (tortelloni or agnolotti) and baked with besciamella sauce, funghi trifolati, grana and sometimes fontina cheese. For a special treat, you can prepare wild mushroom lasagna, with or without meat. Funghi selvatici are also great in filled crespelle (crepes) or focacce, and are even occasionally used as toppings on pizza. They are ideal in risotto—often using porcini, though many other varieties, fresh or dried, are great for this dish, especially morels and chanterelles. Wonderful cream soups, veloutés, are also prepared with wild mushrooms. Many varieties of funghi selvatici can be fried and some just grilled. They are also often used in sauces or as an accompaniment to many meat preparations—from scaloppine to brasati and spezzatini, braised and stewed meat. Some chefs combine the more delicate wild mushrooms with fish.