Italian Language Blog

Funghi fever Posted by on Oct 1, 2008 in Culture

I live in an area of Italy particularly famous for porcini mushrooms (boletus), the main ingredients for many Italian dishes. It’s the end of September, the season for wild mushroom hunting and funghi fever is reaching its climax. About two weeks ago we had a big rainfall that was greeted with joy by all the villagers, as it meant that in 8-10 days mushrooms would grow (spuntano i funghi we say). Now, as soon as you walk outside, even just to throw your rubbish in the communal bin, you hear: “Andate per funghi?” (Are you going for mushrooms?); coming back the question is: “Avete trovato funghi?” (Have you found mushrooms?).

Porcini means “little pigs”, but the origin of the name is unknown. Their scientific name is boletus edulis and they belong to the boletus family, which unlike the more common champignon don’t have gills, but a sort of sponge. They can be preserved in several ways, and the most common system is to slice them and let them dry out in the sun. At this time of year the main village road is lined with wooden boxes filled with sliced mushrooms set out to dry, and the whole village smells of porcini.


Porcini grow in forests of chestnuts, beeches and oaks. They are very difficult to spot because they are the same color of the dead leaves that cover the ground. The first time we went mushroom hunting we came back after three hours with only three sad mushrooms that weren’t even edible! We almost gave up, but when we saw the oldest lady in the village (92 years old!) coming back from a little stroll at the car park with a basket full of porcini our pride was badly hurt. The following day we went out again and in four hours we managed to pick a dozen small but wonderfully tasty porcini. With practice we got better.

Of course it’s impossible to equal the locals. Everyone has her/his secret place that will never be revealed even to other members of the family. They get up before dawn to be there first, in case somebody might discover their secret place. At the weekend people drive from the towns in hoards to pick mushrooms. There is a beautiful short story written by Italo Calvino, entitled “Funghi in cittร ”, which perfectly describes the sense of fever and ownership for the wild mushrooms.

In order to protect the environment there are some precise rules about wild mushroom picking: you are meant to cut the stem with a sharp knife; to leave at least one mushroom from each ring or group; to carry them in a basket and not in a carrier bag in order to let the spores drop. Unfortunately not everybody follows these simple rules.

If you have never picked wild mushrooms before, it’s best to be safe and show them to an experienced hunter, or you can take them into town and have them checked by the municipal police or by a specialist grocer. In fact there are many poisonous mushrooms that are easily mistaken for the edible ones. This is particularly true of the amanita Caesarea or ovolo buono, which is regarded as the best wild mushroom (the Latin name means “worthy of Caesar”), but belongs to the same family of the amanita muscaria or ovolo malefico, one of the most deadly ones.

N.B. In Italian we don’t differentiate between mushrooms and funghi or toadstool. They are all Funghi, whether they are edible or poisonous, cultivated or wild.

Porcini can be cooked in many different ways: in risotto, fried, in tomato sauce, but la loro morte (lit.:”their death”; a common expression used to mean “the best way to cook something”) is funghi trifolati. This is the simplest and most tasty recipe: cut away the soil at the bottom of the porcini and clean them with a damp cloth. Slice them (not too thinly). Chop a clove of garlic and some fresh parsley. In a frying pan gently fry the garlic in extra virgin olive oil, add the porcini and let them cook for a few minutes. Add a little salt, sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Buon appetito!

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  1. natasha:

    Love this post!!! I didn’t realize how similar “Italian mushroom picking” is to “Russian mushroom picking”. Also, I would kill for a porcini risotto right about now ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. david carmona:

    Can you eat porcini and still be a vegetarian?

  3. natasha:

    david – totally!!!!

  4. david carmona:

    I know, I was being facetious!
    I’m still convinced, however, that vegans can’t have the “ovolo malefico” ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Danny:

    Amanita muscaria is not deadly, or at least not without a great deal of effort or willful ignorance. The only reported deaths from the consumption of this mushroom are either from children eating a considerable portion of their body weight in fresh specimens, or from amateur trip-seekers who neglect to research the nature of their vice, proclaim themselves victims of non-specific “mushroom poisoning” to hospital staff, and are administered atropine; an effective measure against the deadly amatoxins found in several other species of Amanita, but a known exacerbator of muscaria’s toxic compounds, Ibotenic Acid and Muscimol, often to the point of death.

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