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Mushroom hunting in Salentu

Mugnola: yellow-fleshed boletes. They don't distinguish them around here, "they're all mugnoli," I was told.

I didn't know what I was looking for at the beginning. Giuseppe just showed me a picture and told me, "yellow."

I was terrifically excited when I first found them. TI came home with a whole basketful, loaded with this big, dome-shaped boletes with twigs (rametti) glued to the caps (pellicini.)

They have a mild flavor when cooked. Unfortunately, glue from the caps tends to leak into whatever sauce you make, turning them into what some people called "snails."

Carduncellu: from ndu c'e' lu cardu, meaning "where the cardu is." Said in a circle, "ndu c'e' lu cardu ndu c'e' lu cardu..." you recover the name. Cardu is a thistle-like plant that grows in the steppes. The carduncelli, part of the genus pleurotus, grow in the dirt nearby it. The mushrooms blend in completely with the rocks.

He would point out similar looking mushrooms. "Check these out. See that the gills don't go down the stem? You want gills that go down the stem." But once I knew what I was looking for it was easy.

"You have the eye," he said.

People had visited the steppe before us. We know that because the previous folks took care to preserve the little mushrooms. Next to them, though, were the cleanly cut stumps. They must have come that morning. Carduncelli can fetch twenty to forty euros a kilo, which is a fine price. No wonder people hunt them.

Jo took me all around the steppe. He knew every little spot. "Walk towards the fence, and then walk parallel to it, about four meters away. Go for a while and you'll find a good spot." He was right most of the time. "You can walk for ages here and not find anything. You have to know where to look. I've walked around here for days and days. If it weren't so late we could go all around."

He brought up Giuseppe. "He's a character, huh," he told me. They had had a falling out, apparently Giuseppe got a bit too brusque with him one day. But they're back to being friends.

I know that Giuseppe can be like that. He's mostly kind, but I've seen that side of him too. Beside his considerate and friendly side is also an unfair side, a blameful side. You see this when he's stressed.

I told him that's how I felt about Francesca, but times a million. He knew her, said she came over for dinner once at Piccapane. He remembered that she had had cancer. I always found that strange about her. I thought that after 20 years of yoga, and having had cancer, she'd have softened up somewhat. But I don't know if I've ever met such a cold and hard berson before.

We even hunted for the carduncelli after dark. Jo brought out headlamps and handlamps and we scoured the field for thirty minutes before finally packing in.

On an evening I went to Jo's house to eat them. He had been cooking them in a pignata (terra cotta pot) by the fire for hours. He added green onions, a tiny tomato, origano, and some water. We ate them with our eyes closed.

Sanguignu: from sangue meaning "blood." When you cut them, bloody latex (latice) oozes out of the mushroom flesh.

Pietro was the first to show this to me on our trip through Parco dei Fossili. He had found a tiny one and the book was unambiguous about its identity: lactarius deliciosus.

Tiziana had mentioned that her husband found them. She showed me a picture. Ochre, orange, green, a whole basketful. She said they're better than meat.

Pietro didn't remember where he found it, so we walked through most of the park again. We found a lot of them this time, but they were a little older and drier this time. The blood had changed color to purple. We took them anyway.

No one would touch them but me. I simply trusted the book. I cooked them in a little olive oil and garlic. The flavor was on-point.


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