- The Secret Ingredient (Porcini Sagra) -
When I moved to Rome, I decided to immerse myself in Italian cuisine. I can’t deny taking great pleasure in eating fettuccine ai funghi porcini, yet the people and culture behind the ingredients enthralled me too. Visiting Italy’s sagre or food fairs, which take place in small rural villages from September onwards, seemed perfect to satisfy my appetite.
The first porcini sagra of the year took place at Colle di Fuori in Southern Lazio. After sunset, life dripped into the village’s main street, which led to the main piazza. One stall owner gave away free samples of smoked pecorino with truffle. Another turned on bright flashing lights, mirroring the colours of his candy stall. Yet the crowd wasn’t interested in cheesy or sugary treats - they joined the group of people waiting at the biglietteria to select their favourite porcini dish out of a limited menu.
"Il bigliettaio è in ritardo,” one man shouted as people became uneasy waiting. Three little boys ran towards my dog - she spread her legs, waiting for a belly rub she wouldn’t get. The boys instead started chasing her like cubs trying to catch up to a nimble lamb. People pointed and laughed, entertained.
After receiving our tickets, my boyfriend and I picked up a big portion of grilled porcini, creamy truffle risotto, and gnocchi, which we ate at picnic tables looking over the very forest the mushrooms were harvested. The mushrooms were a taste explosion, the grilled crispy edges and buttery texture exactly like that of a steak. The earthy truffle complemented the nutty porcini perfectly; the risotto melted in my mouth. This was real Italian food.
Later, one stall owner tried persuading me to try wild boar topped with a porcini sauce: a famous dish at his restaurant.
“Sono vegetariana,” I shrugged and he rolled his eyes, not understanding how someone could say no to such a specialty dish. Porcini is like meat to me, I tried to explain. He didn’t understand my Italian and threw his hands in the air: they are mushrooms, not meat!
He went on to talk about his foraging hobby with passion. Porcini like a moist environment and with the first rainfall, clusters of mushrooms pop up literally overnight. Before dawn, “hunters” go into the woods, placing their harvest carefully in baskets through which spores can escape and encourage future growth. They make sure to hide their treasure from curious colleagues, not to reveal where the most fertile location is. This time of year, stories of people falling of cliffs while trying to pick the perfect mushroom fill local newspapers.
It’s a dirty, tiring job but pays incredibly well. In my local supermarket, fresh porcini are sold for about forty euros per kilo, dried ones for about two hundred. The earthy juice from rehydrating dried porcini is adequately called “liquid gold” and deepens the umami-flavour of every dish it’s added to. One of the stalls at the sagra sold cabbage-sized porcini for only fifteen euros a kilo, so I was quick to buy my very first batch. The stall owner jokingly pretended to be a gnome, hiding from the rain under his giant mushroom umbrella.
A sign - mostra fotografica - hung above a tent; black-and-white pictures of mushroom hunters covered the inside walls. They also showed the three most important events that happened to the village over the past hundred years: the bombing during World War II, the local school's opening, and that one time it snowed. Men and women looked alike in their all-covering long garments, simple hairstyles, and serious facial expressions.
These rural Italian villages are unique. At Colle di Fuori, there was a sense that everything stood still in time and came only to life during the one-week sagra. The locals seemed extremely proud in everything they did, parading on the local piazza with their children and small dogs, picking out the best mushrooms from wooden crates, giving their local pasta a different name to the same shaped one of different regions. I felt l entered a bubble and was revealed the secrets to their traditions.
On our way back to the car, I took pictures of the setting: a dad teaching his daughter how to shoot cola cans to win a teddy bear, an old man supporting his wife as she walked up the stairs, a police officer drinking wine from a plastic glass. One of the carabinieri's friends looked curiously at us, the only non-Italians, and invited us for a glass of wine. I told him I don’t drink, but he shoved a glass in my hands anyway. He boasted about the village having the best mushrooms in the whole region.
The following day I attended a bean sagra in Arsoli, about fifty kilometres northeast of the porcini sagra. I proudly told one local about my experience, feeling like a true mycophile (a devotee of mushrooms).
“At Colle di Fuori?” he sniggered. “We have the best porcini.”