Gambero Rosso
8 ottobre 2022

Magic mushrooms


Italy is the country that eats the most mushrooms. It is also a country that eats a lot of fish. And where a lot of game is also consumed. What do these three worlds have in common? First of all, the fact that, while consumption is increasing exponentially, production is decreasing at the same rate.

Today, we’re talking about mushrooms: “If the total is 100, we can say that, in the last 30 years in Italy, mushroom farms have decreased by 80% and that imports from abroad have increased at the same pace,” explains Luigi Dattilo, owner of Appennino Food, a company specialized in the distribution of mushrooms and truffles.

The worlds of mushrooms, hunting, and fishing are closely related to each other

The world of mushrooms, hunting and fishing are closely connected and form the basis of a cuisine that we can describe as selvaggia (wild). Fulvietto Pierangelini, for example, is a hunter-fisherman, who has chosen to live in his home town of San Vincenzo, dividing his time between sea and woodland.

The idea is that of a raw, immediate cuisine, the direct result of the physical hunt for ingredients.

“Fishing and mushroom picking are my two passions, they are essential experiences: they are activities that relax and inspire me, they give me everything,” says the chef, son of the legendary Fulvio Pierangelini. “I search for and cook all the mushrooms that grow in this area: morels, prugnoli, some cardarello (aka cardoncello or pleurotus eryngii); for porcini mushrooms, though, it’s getting harder, as this is an arid area with little rain; but in the porcini season, the fun is to collect them on the same day but in different woods, chestnut, turkey oak, spruce... different species that also have different characteristics in the kitchen. We get a lot of ovolo mushrooms around here, which are amazing.”

And it is here that the sea comes into play! “In the porcini season, in the sea, it’s the right time for sea bream and squid: a spectacular combination. So I enjoy making raw dishes with squid and spruce-forest porcini mushrooms, or prawn tartare with ovolo mushrooms; I pair the sea bream with mashed potatoes and freshly sautéed porcini mushrooms: there is truly nothing better! In this period, the sea bream have eggs and are fatter: it is the exaltation of this fish...” The cycle goes on: “Prugnolo mushrooms, in spring, are gathered during the period of catching cuttlefish: very thinly sliced with raw prugnoli is the best way to eat them. Then there are the parasol mushrooms: in the kitchen, you can use it to make a vegan hamburger; chanterelles are delicious broken up by hand and sautéed with calamint and garlic to be served on spaghetti or even in a sauce with the catch of the day. All this gives you a feeling of fullness, of being truly a part of nature.”

A wood pigeon is not very different from a fish

A short distance from Fulvietto’s Il Bucaniere, there is La Pineta di Marina di Bibbona, run by the Zazzeri family. The legendary Luciano departed prematurely a while back, and it is his children who carry forward the suggestions of poetry and the art of life drawn by their father, a fisherman by profession and later chef on the beach. “A wood pigeon is not very different from a fish. My father was a fisherman by trade for twenty years, he had both a hunting license and a mushroom picking permit. Thus, in this place devoted to seafood, it is natural to experiment with combinations of hunting, fishing and mushrooms,” says Daniele Zazzeri, head chef at La Pineta.

“For example, fresh cocchi (aka ovolo mushrooms) go really well with raw red shrimp, as do porcini mushrooms. Mushrooms and crustaceans go well together, starting with that butter that you find in the shrimp head.

These days, sometimes we still manage to go mushroom picking, but we have trusted friends and acquaintances who bring them fresh. I remember that as a child we always went hunting with our grandfather Sandro; we would forage in the woods for the mushrooms that would be our lunch: chanterelles, cocchi, porcini, pioppini, dentini... in the shed, in the hut, we made them for lunch: sausage, beans and mushrooms made a classic hunting meal. And any left over, he cooked at home, and preserved them in oil.

Today, we have mushrooms off menu: when they are in season, we offer them, but we never get them from abroad. So, in season, we propose the tagliolino with shellfish and mushrooms, or the cocchi salad; late fig with cocchi and red shrimp seasoned only with salt, oil and pepper. A classic of ours is the risotto with mushroom broth and purple shrimp with powdered horn of plenty and reduction of shrimp heads.”

Going mushroom foraging was and is also a way of escaping the daily routine: a couple of hours to free your mind and start over

“Going mushroom foraging was and is also a way of escaping the daily routine: a couple of hours to free your mind and start over,” explains Daniele Zazzeri. “When you are in the woods, you go back to nature, you only hear the sounds of the leaves, the birds… You recharge your batteries, it is a regenerating experience.” There you have it. Italy is a country that we still define as having an agricultural tradition, but perhaps we should view it more as a country where there is still a strong rural tradition.

What is the difference? Modern agriculture is now also an industrial activity, while the rural tradition refers to an earlier, more ancient period, almost on the border between settlement (cultivation and livestock farming) and nomadism (shepherding, hunting).

Foraging for mushrooms is now the oldest tradition that remains: even the imaginary linked to mushrooms takes us back to an archaic culture where magic and daily life were always interwoven, where mushrooms were “poisons” and “potions”, linked to a Dionysian imaginary. Because mushrooms, all mushrooms, contain portions of poison and psychotropic substances that can also lead to intoxication and hallucinations (in the case of excessive consumption or ingestion of inedible mushrooms) and that in the collective imagination are often linked to magic and for this reason incompatible with the culture of settlement and control, including religion.

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