Italians have been harvesting mushrooms from the nation’s forests for thousands of years, seeking out tasty funghi for their pasta sauces, salads, risottos and pizzas. In the Middle Ages, porcini mushrooms from the Apennine mountains were picked, salted and sold all across Europe, just as they are today. All the while, Italians came to rely on expert fungaioli (mushroom hunters), who could tell poisonous varieties from delicious ones. Nowadays, you can still find Italians in the woods during the main mushroom-finding season, which tends to coincide with autumn.
The many fabulous funghi in Italian delicatessens
When you head to delicatessens like Eataly during mushroom season, you’ll find baskets crammed with funghi. Here’s a quick run down of the types you’ll be most likely to encounter:
- Finferli – Also known in English-speaking countries as Chantarelle mushrooms, Finferli are orange coloured and have a funnel-like shape, with ridges underneath the cap. With its peppery flavour, it’s one of the most delicious mushrooms around.
- Ovoli – Also called “Caesar’s mushroom” because of its popularity among Roman emperors, ovoli are so-named because of their resemblance to an egg during the early stages of their growth. They are slightly sweet when fresh.
- Champignon – Probably more famous as Portobello mushrooms, champignons can be white or brown and are easily farmed, so they can be found in dishes across the world. In Italy, they are a popular way to add some depth to pasta sauces.
- Porcini – As we’ve mentioned, porcini are picked all over Italy and are often dried and chopped into sauces. However, they can also be sliced and fried when fresh.
- Chiodini – Shaped a little like nails, chiodini need to be carefully cooked to remove their toxins. But, after that, they are a wonderful addition to pasta or risottos.
- Pioppini – Commonly used in Italy’s many varieties of pasta con funghi, pioppini are thin, with brown caps and are usually bought in connected clusters. Again, they add richness and depth, with their enticing peppery taste.
How mushrooms have been used by Italian chefs
Over the centuries, Italian chefs have found hundreds of ways to prepare and cook these varieties. Some mushroom dishes are extremely simple. For example, funghi trifolati just involve cooking chopped mushrooms with a little garlic and olive oil, and maybe some freshly picked sage of parsley, resulting in a tantalising side dish. Many main courses also let mushrooms take centre stage too. Risotto con i funghi porcini (risotto with porcini mushrooms) and tagliatelle con i funghi porcini both add a little porcini to beef up their sauces. However, mushrooms have many other uses. In northern Italy, it’s common to mix fried mushrooms and herbs with polenta, before grilling the mix with some Taleggio cheese. Some recipes also dispense with cooking altogether, combining raw mushrooms with salads. And naturally you can also add some sliced porcini or finferli to pizzas before they go in the oven.
With so many uses, funghi are something no Italian chef should be without, especially during mushroom season, so get down to your local Eataly store and stock up!