Travel and Culture

Alf in Italy – Foraging in Abruzzo

Jul 19, 2019

Italy has a long tradition of producing great cars . Ferrari, Maserati, Lancia, Alfa Romeo and so on. Beautifully designed high performance vehicles that make you smile as they pass. They are so wonderful that they could be described as art on wheels. As well as these dream machines, Italy is also responsible for the Fiat Doblo: a rounded, dumpy looking van, useful for making deliveries or  transporting a few cages of chickens to a new home. There is a sticker on the rear window proclaiming it the Van of the Year which makes me worry about the standard of the competition. It is certainly not what I would consider automotive art. Where a Maserati glides along straight roads, the Doblo bounds. Where a Ferrari elegantly drifts around bends, the Doblo shudders and shakes. The Doblo I am in has a rear seat that could double as a park bench which, as I shudder and shake along with the Doblo, makes the fact I can’t find where to clip in my seat belt rather disconcerting. Fulvio and Simone, strapped securely into their front seats by belts that work, seem unperturbed by the jostling and shuddering. Perhaps Simone, navigating us through a web of disgracefully maintained rural Abruzzese roads to our destination is more used to the experience, or maybe he is just more familiar with Fulvio’s enthusiastic driving style. He is directing us toward the far reaches of Abruzzo, somewhere near the Molise border, to forage for mushrooms.

Simone is expedition leader, an expert forager. Fulvio, providing the mechanical miracle that is the Doblo, is team driver as he knows very little about mushrooms. As I know even less than Fulvio – i.e. nothing – I have been nominated the official expedition historian (a role, I might point out, I am rather happy with).

We bounce on along the choppy, narrow rural roads past grey-green olive groves, vineyards and patches of urban housing, shuddering over streams bordered by woods.  About 10 minutes ago I saw a sign indicating Chieti 4 km and I have just seen the same sign again –  making me a touch uncertain of our navigator’s ability. We seem to be driving in a large circle around Chieti… perhaps we’ll spend the whole day doing this.

Turns out, I need not have been concerned.

Following the Alteno River Valley, over looked on the east by Bucchianico and the west by Chieti, we drive by farmland and woods painted that fresh spring green. From the valley, the ancient city of Chieti seems like nothing more than a collection of apartment blocks built over steep hillsides. It looks as though a city designed for the plain has been lifted up and draped over a hill top. I imagine the buildings are in perpetual fear of one day slowly sliding down into the Pescara river on the other side of the hill. The wide, smooth roads seem to soothe the Doblo’s shuddering and, free from bracing myself against the seat in front, I can now enjoy the scenery.
Always in the background, snow-dusted Maiella surveys our passage as we pass Guardiagrele and Casoli and drive along the Val di Sangro .  From the van window we catch views over Lago di Bomba and the perched villages Bomba and Villa Santa Maria,  defying gravity to stay put on their precarious hillsides. I realise that in the space of an hour we have traveled across half of Abruzzo.  We turn away from valley and into wooded hills and back on a narrow mountain road the bounding and sliding starts again.  We pass through tiny Giuliopoli which has a huge equestrian statue and one of the omnipresent Padre Pio – apparently their major attraction. Soft beech forest gives way to harsh burned hillsides flecked with light green regrowth.  Dark green, almost black, conical pines stand like an army of living safety cones on either side.

Fulvio stops at the edge of a spreading meadow. I get out, relieved and rubbing my bruised knees.  Simone has made sure that I will be protected from mountain weather and has brought me a mountain coat, mountain boots and a cosy mountain beanie along with a hierarchy of mushroom hunting sticks, the most impressive of which he keeps for himself. I look down at the stick in my hand; it looks like it was made by someone who could not decide whether they need a walking stick or a club.  Simone’s stick has three prongs on the end, perhaps to subdue any particularly violent fungus that wishes to put up a fight against our expedition. He carries a basket on his back to collect the hundreds of mushrooms he is sure we will find. 

We drink a mug of wine before we set off because, well, because.

The setting could not be more idyllic. We are surrounded by woods and mountains still dusted with winter snow. There is a farmhouse nearby, sheep are grazing on the hillside and above us an eagle soars, searching for thermals as it makes its way to the village of  Pescopennataro atop a ridge in the distance. We stroll across the meadow enjoying the prickly high altitude air and the soft warmth of the sun. The meadow is rich with yellow dandelions and buttercups, occasionally dotted with a white daisy or purple hyacinth.

Simone leads the way, walking with the easy familiarity of knowing the meadow and its secrets. He bends down and shows us what to look for, the signs of mushrooms. I presumed they would be plumply sitting in the grass, easily visible, waiting to be plucked from the soil. Easy game like the field mushrooms we have back in Australia. Instead, Simone points out a dark green crescent of longer grass and calls it a funghaia, the place where the type of mushrooms we seek are found hiding. Today we are looking for a variety called Spinarolo which mature in the spring, growing as companion to many spiny plants (hence the name).

Simone kneels down next to a curve of the longer darker grass and gently sifts his hand through the strands. Before long, he uncovers a group of round, whitish fungus…then another group, and another. Cutting each one loose with his knife, he puts them in the basket…continuing the work systematically searching through the long clumps of grass. Fulvio, rather comically, works beside him using a rather different technique. With great confidence, he slaps his hand firmly down on the grass at random intervals, hoping to feel the hidden spinaroli underneath his palm like some magnetic pulse. A lack of serendipity, or perhaps a lack of patience and concentration, sees the group soon becoming restless and Simone, regarding the kilo or so of mushrooms in his basket with a fond smile, announces its time to return home and turn our treasures into dinner.

It turns out Fulvio has saved a certain very nifty driving trick for the return trip. Relaxed from the fresh mountain air, he casually begins to roll a cigarette with both hands, chatting with us while the Dolgo’s wheel remains unguided, the so-called Van of the Year apparently driving itself. Not a smoker myself, I have a brief moment of realising that a nicotine fix might just manage to kill me as the Doblo threatens to slide sideways along the mountain road. I still cannot clip on my seat belt and slam violently against the door frame. What will happen if the ambulance comes and they see our mushroom haul? Will they sneak them out of the wreckage for their own risotto al funghi, laughing at how this never would have happened if they’d been driving a Ferrari? Perhaps we should have stopped at the Padre Pio statue in Giuliopoli and prayed earnestly for protection form Italy’s favourite saint.

Despite my panicked face, white as the snow on the mountains beside us, the Doblo copes very well with its new independence and does not deviate from its course. Perhaps Fiat built the first self driving car without telling anyone. Fulvio lights his smoke, takes control of the steering wheel and we bounce on, like my entire existential crisis never happened. Perhaps he used mind control to steer. I laugh nervously to myself. Who needs Padre Pio’s intervention anyway?

Sitting at a table in the sun with the mushroom basket in front of him, mushroom knife in hand, Simo cleans the spinaroli, preparing them for cooking. As I sip a beer and reflect on the day, I realise this has been one of those experiences that provides an inside view of Italian life, much better than going on a truffle hunt organised for tourists – this is real, real Italy. Friends enjoying a pleasant day in the mountains together and then coming home to make dinner with the mushrooms they have foraged that day. There is a connection to both the land and to tradition. Twenty first century, urban Italians still continuing rural traditions derived from an impoverished past, when foraging for food wasn’t a luxury, it was a necessity…a way of providing special dishes that could only be enjoyed for a short period each year. As I scrub the last of the mountain soil from my hands, Simone prepares Boscaiola for our dinner, a dish that is so simple that it could easily dismissed. It’s crumbed sausage meat. funghi and short pasta. The fragrance of the mushrooms as they cook is incredible. In the finished dish they almost have the same texture as the meat, so naturally delicious and deeply satisfying.

I sit down at the table and look at us, eating, talking and drinking, having spent the day in this incredible place. These mushrooms wouldn’t taste the same anywhere else, because they taste of the earth on my hands, the wind that brushed my face, the sweetness of friendship and the richness of tradition. They taste of this place.

Written by Alf

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