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Mushrooms! What Passion!

Cooking and eating are art forms in Italy. The English eat to live, but the Italians live to eat. Meals are both clocks and calendars to the Italians, especially to those who live outside the big cities, such as the good people of Vico Equense. When I lived in Naples, I never really noticed autumn. Summer just deteriorated, the city became greyer, more squalid and miserable, and you suddenly realised that winter had arrived. Here on the Sorrento peninsula, things are rather different. If Naples has only two seasons, wet and dry, Sorrento and its environs has a host of them.

And nowhere is this more apparent than on the end of your fork. One minute, the sun is shining, and you’re sitting out on the balcony, eating lightly grilled tuna or swordfish. The salads are light and sunny, with golden, home-made olive oil, chilled courgette, iced lettuce and those rather tempting San Marzano tomatoes that Giovanna sends me out to buy by the kilo.

This is, of course, a great mistake. I buy a kilo, take the scenic route home, while chomping on “just one more” tomato and realise, with horror, that I’ve just about got through the entire bloody bag of them by the time I reach the front door. I then have two choices: carry on up the stairs regardless, present myself tomatoless in front of the draconian “’er indoors” and risk a brutal dressing down for being such a useless and gluttonous great lump, and an afternoon of recriminations of the “I-can’t-ask-you-to-do-a-bloody-thing-without-you-making-a-bloody-great-balls-up-of-it” variety. Biting into the last San Marzano, I generally decide that it’s better to be bollocked for slowness than for gluttony, so I head off in search of another greengrocer’s. (Well, I can hardly go back to the first, can I? I’d look such a prick!)

Towards the end of the summer, cheese features heavily. No longer the air mozzarella of summer, but the heavier, creamier specialities of the Sorrento area; the mellow burrino made with butter from Vico Equense, or the slightly tangy caciocavallo. Stuffed artichokes are back after the summer break and red meats return to the menu. Now that autumn is in full flow, the fare becomes heavier still, with full-bodied soups and broths, aromatic and peppery, full of kidney beans, lentils and chick-peas (not forgetting, of course, the ubiquitous chestnuts).

It is certainly true that, since I have lived in Italy, my relationship with food has developed to the point at which I fear it is about to turn sexual. I do believe that when it comes to cuisine, I have gone well and truly native. Popping into the newsagent one day shortly after Bill’s visit, a magazine with a rather gripping title caught my eye. It was called “Mushrooms! What Passion!” I spent all day theorising on what it could possibly be about until I finally gave into temptation and bought myself a copy on the way home from work. “Mushrooms! What Passion!”, it turned out, was a new weekly bible for fungus foragers, those pitiable creatures who fritter away endless dawns up in the hills, rummaging through heath, scrub, thicket, wood, forest and compost in search of pongy, mildewy funghi.

I decided to take out a subscription to the magazine, for it was packed with scrumptious recipes that Giovanna could metamorphose into poetry in the kitchen, and I was intrigued to read that mushrooms are celebrated among Italians for their aphrodisiacal qualities (unless, of course, you confuse your Lactarius Volemus with your Lactarius Torminosus and spend all night on the crapper). I had visions of myself taking a penknife and basket along on our Sunday morning ramblings. All I would have to do then would be to shell out for half a kilo of fresh pasta and a half-decent bottle of plonk and Roberto would be my uncle: instant paradise.

Sadly, some weeks after the first issue, the publishers, in their infinite wisdom, changed the title from “Mushrooms! What Passion!” to the more sedate “Hunting for Mushrooms”, and I never did quite become a forager (unless you count foraging through grocery shops). But just take a look at some of the recipes featured:
“Lasagne with assorted mushrooms and béchamel sauce.”
“Pheasant in a rich sauce of mushroom and onion.”
“Lamb chops with mushroom-stuffed artichokes.”
“Duck and mushroom casserole.”
“Roast goose with mushroom stuffing.”
“Mullet with mixed herbs and mushrooms.”
Damn me but aren’t mushrooms versatile! And there was me thinking that they were just a tasty filling for an omelette or perhaps an extravagant ingredient in one of Tesco’s £2.99 fry-ups. Italy really can broaden your horizons sometimes, and no mistake.

15 pensieri riguardo “Mushrooms! What Passion!

  1. I can identify with your comparison of eating to live and living to eat. Our last visit to Italy showed that to be very true. Food was celebrated and the quality was out of this world. I laughed at your San Marzano story. I grow a lot of tomatoes in my garden each year and you can never stop at just one. Sadly, we now have to go back to buying tomatoes. At least we have a good market source. Keep us updated on how the mushroom meals are going. All the best Giacomo. Allan

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  2. So, so true, Italians live to eat. I worked with two Italian ladies and learn a lot from them, including lots of recipes. I love Italian food. It’s art. Thanks for your story. You made me smile and crave for tomatoes🙂

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