The other day we went mushroom hunting. A large part of Abruzzo is protected, so you really have to know where to forage to make sure you are not in a national park or natural reserve. Local foragers have their secret spots that they are not so eager to share, so every time I ask where they go for mushrooms they make a broad gesture pointing south or east and reply with a friendly smile: “In that direction, there are plenty of them around”.
We decided to try a more scientific approach and went with a local mycological group that organises courses and field trips for enthusiasts. Getting up before dawn was not easy but visions of basketfuls of beautiful Italian porcini spurred me on. When we arrived, the car park at the forest of Monte Pallano was packed with an army of excited foragers getting they baskets ready and wrapping up against the autumn morning chill. We followed our head mycologist Marco Cilli who was puffing on a large fragrant cigar with a basket across his shoulder.The moment we stepped under the trees the foragers’ chatter died away. The smell of damp soil tickled my nostrils, wet from the recent heavy rains brown leaves swished under my feet. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the mix of greens, yellows and browns of the forest floor before I spotted a small Russula mushroom, hiding under fallen oak leaves, then grey milkcap. We found plenty of beautiful mushrooms, although, quite a few of them, after a close inspection by the expert Marco, were classified as inedible or even poisonous. I discovered a whole new world of smells that can help identify mushrooms: some of them smell of boiled milk, others of flour. There was even a mushroom with a scent of … fermented William pear but, despite its lovely smell, it was not edible.Our baskets were not filling up as quickly as we hoped but we picked beautiful oak acorns that can be used as Christmas decorations to use up the space. A few times we came across carpets of delicate pink cyclamens, thousands of them scattered under the trees. We saw lovely bright bee hives with sleepy bees getting ready for winter. Now and then a few other mushroom hunters appeared from behind the trees saying “Buongiorno” and looking in our baskets to compare the trophies. Everyone was happy in the magic forest! It hid little treasures for anyone who had enough patience to find them.
Many rural municipalities in Italy have strict rules for mushroom foraging and allow only 3-5 kg per collector. There is also a fee to be paid in some areas. The best way to enjoy mushroom foraging is to go on an organised tour or stay at a local agriturismo where they can advise on details. In the agriturismo Ca’ Bianca near Parma, for instance, the owners will give you a map of the local mushroom foraging route. At the farm Funghi e Fate you can visit a porcini reserve with a guide.
The best places for mushroom foraging:
In Emilia-Romagna the area around Parma is famous for its porcini of Borgotaro, the only mushroom in Europe to be awarded the protected designation of origin title I.G.P (Indicazione Geografica Protetta). There are many dedicated foraging well-signed paths in the Regional Park of Appennino Modenese.
In Umbria the forests near Terni are well-known to foragers for good mushrooms.
The forests in Val di Fiemme, Trentino-Alto Adige, are popular among local and visiting mushroom hunters. A daily permit (permesso giornaliero) costs 12 euro and can be bought in the towns of Cavalese and Predazzo.