We love festivals of all kinds, but we love food related festivals more than anything.
I think the last time we were at one was in Croatia, where it seemed that the entire region of Istria was celebrating the harvest of something – truffles, chestnuts, olives, you name it.
Here in Vermiglio, in the Val di Sole, the summer is awash in festivals that celebrate local produce and products. But without a car or a frequent bus, many of them are out of our reach.
Which is why the Mushroom Festival, or BRISE E BRISOTI as it’s marketed, was top on our list.
The website touted a full day of mushroom related festivities starting at 9am including a hike with a trained mushroom expert before giving way to 6 booths serving mushroom related dishes and products for sale.
I imagined at very least a mushroom shaped bouncy house for kids and people in morel shaped costumes wandering around the festival grounds looking for photo opportunities. At most, a pool sized pit of mushrooms into which we could scrooge mc duck. I certainly wasn’t going to miss this.
As I walked the lonely kilometer to the white tents down by the river, I told myself I would approach the mushroom festival as if I were covering it for a newspaper. I was, in my mind, a reporter.
I was early as usual, which I’m finding is a product born not of any love of promptness, but of a lack of preparation and knowledge. All I knew was that I had to be in a vaguely defined location at a specific time to meet an expert who would lead an undetermined number of people on a foraging hike for an undetermined amount of time.
Realizing how big the festival grounds spanned, I began to observe people in the hopes of finding my mushroom expert. I noted that several people had woven wicker baskets slung in the hook of their elbows, long pants tightly tucked into their sturdy hiking boots. At their waists or attached to the baskets by a string were small and very sharp looking knives perfect for either plucking a mushroom from the forest floor, or my inquisitive eyeball from it’s socket.
It’s these people I monitored for clues about where to congregate. This strategy panned out quite well for soon enough a small middle-aged woman with a khaki vest covered with badges materialized from behind a ray of sunshine, tapping a clipboard filled with names.
I approached and used my very limited knowledge of the Italian language to say inquisitively: “funghi?”
She nodded, slightly put off at my lack of subtleties in discourse afforded to native speakers of a language. I pushed ahead.
“Mi chiamo Zachary”, pointing to my name on the clipboard. She was confused so I pointed again. She repeated it as best she could, so I nonchalantly explained that Zachariah is “un chiamo biblico”. Impressed with my trivial knowledge, I rocked back on my heels (I learned this factoid from our host, who is a devout Catholic. The news was delivered to me with a copy of the biblical excerpt containing my name, which I sadly failed to bring with me this morning).
She asked if I was “Americano”. I smiled and said yes. We were really communicating now! I decided she would be my best friend for the morning; a decision I would come to question moments later.
Our group of 16 people gathered around her for a brief lecture that I’m sure was filled with valuable information about the rest of our morning together. When the herd began to move towards the road, I moved with them, as if I understood the plan.
Before I knew it, everybody had gotten into the cars they came in and were driving away, leaving me alone and in a cloud of gravelly dust kicked up by their tires.
I stood there dumbly, not knowing what to do, thinking that my new best friend - the one person here who knew me best – had totally let me down.
THE MUSHROOM HUNT
I was about to cross her name off my list when she pulled up and gestured for me to hop in.
We drove up into the mountains, past an abandoned and tree filled WW1 hospital, past two tunnels used by soldiers during that same war to access the fort at the top until settling deep in the cool wet forest.
Again, I stood through another brief lecture that I didn’t understand and wandered off towards the bells I heard ringing in the distance through the trees. It was a herd of beautiful cows and goats. Upon seeing me they split up into their respective species. The cows eyed me suspiciously.
One gingerly approached my outstretched hand with her own outstretched snout and tongue, freshly shorn greens dangling from the corner of her mouth, ready to bolt at any sudden movement.
When I wandered back, everybody had already taken off for the hills. I asked the mushroom guide for a bag for my mushrooms, and she tore off a cookie sheet sized piece of foil. Good enough for me. I folded it into a pocket and crimped the edges.
I followed the goats along the river for a bit and then split from them and climbed up under the pines, slipping softly on the blanket of needles covering the incline. After 40 minutes of finding only the stumps of mushrooms left by my fellow foragers,
I sat dejectedly and listened to the receding sound of the bells. So what if I didn’t find any mushrooms I thought to myself amidst the nearly silent forest (Silent but for the waterfall tumbling into the river, and the wind in the pines).
I slid the rest of the way down the hill as if I were surfing over sand dunes and made my way to the parking lot. On my way there, I found clusters of the tiny orange mushrooms I foraged a few weeks back, and spent the better part of 45 minutes harvesting them.
When I was done, the entire group was huddled around a picnic table on which lay an impressive array of mushrooms. The whole scene reminded me of those Dutch paintings of medical students studying a fresh cadaver.
Again, this would have been interesting if I understood more than a handful of Italian words. But since I don’t, I took a few photographs and paced around them like a teenager with no cell phone reception.
Finally, they exhausted their inspections and we drove back the way we came in, past the tunnels, past the wreck of a hospital, across the river and towards the white tents crawling with speck sized people.
THE MUSHROOM FESTIVAL
A single ticket cost 17 euro and gives you access to 6 booths manned by local restaurants serving mushroom related dishes. A man sat down next to me on a bench overlooking the pond and attempted to strike up a conversation about my tagliatelle, but quickly gave into my silent smile. I’m finding this is my only real approach when facing a barrage of a foreign language.
The scene was a charming one. The booths were lined up at decent intervals along the river – far enough away to finish off your bowl of mushroom risotto before you got to the booth with the mushroom tagliatelle. There was live music from a local band covering Beatles and Zeppelin tunes.
We stood at the dessert booth eating our Sambuca flavored ice-cream and raspberries that wore a jaunty mint leaf.
To compliment this ice cream was a steaming cup of barley coffee mixed with hot red wine the dark surface of which was interrupted occasionally by drops of rain.
I grabbed a second cup of this marvelous beverage and walked back along the path to the tent containing what I hoped would be a pile of mushrooms for sale.
No such luck. There was a wood carver whose work can be seen all over town, a bunch of books about mushrooms and Vermiglio. At the very back of the tent we bought what turned out to be an amazing local goat cheese.
We headed home with the few mushrooms I had gathered just before the sky ripped open and soaked everything in the valley, and I realized that I hadn’t taken a single picture of the mushroom festival itself. Maybe next year!