The idea of making extra money by picking blueberries was something I did with my brother and friends, but it was not something others in the village contemplated or actually went out to pick blueberries because the task was very time consuming and the monetary rewards were basically non-existent.
Mushroom picking was absolutely another story.
The entire village waited with great anticipation for the mushroom season. Porcini mushrooms to be exact. Porcini mushrooms are a delicacy and all able people in the village would go hunting for them.
Many vendors from out of town would come to our village to purchase mushroom on a daily basis.
The money made in one day from a really good mushroom find; say 15 to 25 kilograms, would sometimes exceed one month of paid labor for the men in the village.
This puts in prospective the intense competition among the families to get the most mushrooms during the short mushroom season. I remember going to Lucca with my father, the nearest city to our village, and my father helped me open my very first savings account. The majority of the money ever saved in this account was from my mushrooms earnings.
The Porcini mushroom season is usually in September and early October just before chestnuts.
Mushrooms usually grow near and under chestnut trees. Chestnut trees have large leaves and these leaves will slowly decompose during the year and right after summer rains and during the beginning of fall the ground will be musty enough with conditions just right for the sprouting of mushrooms.
My father was by far one of the best mushroom hunters in the village. Because he worked in most of the nearby hills and mountains, he was very familiar with the ground conditions and knew exactly where mushrooms would sprout-up.
For me, the adventure started very early in the day. Armed with flashlights, the two of us would quietly leave the house and make our way outside the village to a specific area mapped out by dad the night before. Walking silently along the dirt pathways, my father would carefully check for possible footprints to determine if someone was up as early as us and ahead of us looking in similar locations. Coveted, secret locations would remain our secret, not even uncle Lino was given these mushrooms spots. Only after we immigrated to America did my father passed down the secret locations to his brother.
Walking quietly up above the hills of the village we waited for the first daylight. As we arrived to our first location, my father would carefully explain to me where mushrooms would most likely be found. Of course we would both be carrying our walking sticks and with them we would carefully move chestnut leaves to check out the ground.
Porcini mushrooms can grow to a fairly large size, I have seen and collected mushrooms with a diameter of up to 8 inches to even a foot, but the best mushrooms are the smaller size up to maybe 6 inches.
If when moving leaves we would see sprouting mushrooms just beginning to come out of the ground, my father would tell me to carefully stop moving my stick and not look any further. It was his experience and belief that once you looked and disturbed the ground, those mushrooms would not grow, but simply die.
He was absolutely correct; each time we would go back to those spots, the mushrooms we had seen would simply be the same size and wilted.
By not disturbing the rest of the ground, once back, it was always a huge success with many mushrooms in the nearby surroundings grown to the ideal size. The experience collecting mushrooms and placing them in our baskets was a feeling of exuberance and accomplishment. After all, mushroom hunting was not only an adventure, but it provided needed funds for our family and my father counted on this each and every season.
It was always fun getting back into the village and showing off our loot. Many would ask where we found them, but we would never reveal our itinerary and possibly give away important clues. During the day, while walking to different locations, my father and I would be very careful not to run into other people; if we did, we would swiftly move away from our location and move directly opposite and protect our site.
On some rare occasions, my mother and grandmother would also go looking. I remember one time my father and I were just coming back from a very long search and had found very little. Once home, my mother came out to meet us outside the house with a big smile. She asked how well we had done and smiled when she saw our measly loot. With a huge grin she strolled in the house asking us to come and see. On the kitchen table lay a huge basket filled with mushrooms. It was the largest find in the village for that day. My father inquired where she found such a large amount of mushroom, but she teased with a smile and told us it was her secret. I was never able to actually find out exactly where she found the mushrooms, but I believe she told my dad because he did tell me later that the area she went looking in was not known for mushrooms and apparently it was very near town.
We considered ourselves expert mushroom hunters and we knew all of the local spots near town. These would be frequented and easily exhausted by strangers coming in from other villages or the city.
Many of these people had no idea on where to look and tried to follow the locals. I remember later once in the US, my uncle telling me that the village had been so completely assaulted by outsiders that many village land owners placed no trespassing signs in order to protect the mushroom sites. As I explained, a lot of fumbling around the chestnut trees will stop any type of mushroom growth.
Once in a while, at least each season, we would hear news of mushroom poisoning. This was always do to people that would come from the city and really had no clue on what type of mushroom to pick.
As a young boy, I was not a very good fan when having to eat mushrooms. Slowly, I became more and more accustomed to the delicacy and now I love the taste of porcini mushrooms. I remember well the way my family used to preserve them and used them to complement sauces and/or salads.
The mushrooms that were not sold, usually the bit older ones, we would slice them evenly and then place the slices on steel spokes, usually made of old broken umbrellas. We would take these filled spokes and place them in the sun for drying. Here the mushroom would completely dry. The dried mushrooms would then be saved and used throughout the year. We used to send the dried mushrooms to the US to our relatives; now we get dried mushrooms from my aunt and cousins each year. They are sure welcome. My father uses them and makes great culinary dishes especially during my visits to Chicago.