It’s just past 8a.m., and Michele De Libero is complaining we’re late. “I’m usually there at 6a.m,” the 81 year old Italian man says, shrugging, oblivious to the fact most people don’t have an internal clock which wakes them up naturally before sunrise.
A 40-minute uphill drive from the small town of Cerreto Sannita in Campania, southern Italy brings us to our destination high in the Matese mountains, where a rare type of edible mushrooms, called Virni, grow wild.
As my boyfriend Luigi drives us up an endless, winding snake of pothole-ridden, crumbling road, Michele tells us he's been coming to these mountains every season for more than thirty years. By ‘season,’ Michele, or as we call him, Zio (uncle), means April and May, the only months of the year when this particular kind of mushroom can be found, and these mountains, their only known home in Italy.
Zio uses the rest of the car ride to tell us stories about his childhood:
“When I was much younger," he says, smiling, "I would come with my parents by foot to villages near these mountains. We would sell clothing and soaps that my mother made by hand.” He goes on to tell us what it was like being a child during World War II, justifying why now, he likes to eat so much. “There was always so little, and sometimes nothing.” He then repeats his usual mantra, which translates to: “Now we have it, so let’s eat it.” He skips over the story Luigi and I already know – how one day, just after the war ended, playing in a field with his friends, a mine suddenly detonated, costing him his left eye.
Soon the ground levels as the dirt road takes us across an open plain. As we park the car in the grass, some suspicious gray and white horses check us out, tails flicking and heads bobbing.
I chuck my phone into the glove compartment, as there’s no service up here anyway, and grab my camera gear. Luigi grabs a backpack filled with sandwiches, water, and beer, Zio grabs his bastone (walking stick), a pair of garden gloves that seem to match him in age, as well as a worn plastic bag which he stuffs halfway into his back pocket.
The conditions are perfect to be outside - It's a sunny day and the air is clean and cool. After ducking under a barbed wire fence, we face a steep drop, and a breathtaking view – a clear, morning landscape of mountains stretching as far as the eye can see, and limitless trees, many of which have started to bloom white flowers. After just a few minutes of being immersed in this amazing nature, I can feel my stress levels dissipate and a sense of calm wash over me.
We cautiously begin to scale down the mountainside. With no trail and thick grass covered in morning dew, it seems unwise for anyone, let alone an 81 year old. It's not long, however, before I realize Zio seems more concerned for Luigi and me than for himself. “Stat accort’ ca, s’ scjula,” (“Be careful here, it’s slippery”) he tells us in dialect, again and again.
Abruptly, Zio throws his bastone to the ground and gets down on his hands and knees. As he puts on the pair of gloves and begins patting the grass, I look to Luigi, who seems just as amused. We watch him pat the ground for a few seconds...
“No, nothing,” he says, getting back on his feet with impressive grace.
Eventually, Zio explains that the mushrooms aren’t exactly visible – because they don’t grow above the grass. Instead, you have to know where they’re likely to be hidden.
“The trick is to recognize the kind of grass they share habitat with,” he says, getting down on his hands and knees again. “You see this?" he says, touching a patch that seems silvery-green compared to the bright, light-green vegetation that surrounds it. "It’s thinner and slightly darker than the other grass. When you find this, you must pat it. Pushing down, you will feel the mushrooms if they are there.”
Suddenly the task before us becomes much more immense, as I realize, even if you find this grass, there might not be any mushrooms to “pat."
Besides the distant, echoing cowbells, wind rustling the trees and the occasional bird calling to another, we are completely alone. Find a patch, squat down, pat, get up, move on, repeat. It's both therapeutic and grueling.
Two hours later we’ve yet to find one mushroom. Spirits low and stomachs rumbling, Luigi and I are the first to suggest taking a break. Zio finds a shady spot, we pop open the beers and eat our sandwiches.
I've barely finished chewing my first bite when Zio suddenly jumps up. “I just remembered a spot where they might be. I’ll be right back,” he says, dashing off, sandwich in hand. Luigi and I look at each other. “Non si stanca mai,” he says to me in amazement. (“He never gets tired.”)
With full stomachs, it's hard to dive back into a search that seems impossible and endless. We meander slowly, wondering where Zio could have gone.
About twenty minutes go by until we hear him calling our names from a distance. “Finally!” he yells, as we reach him. He’s crouched on his knees, in the middle of a thicket, pointing to the ground in front of him. I see nothing.
“You found one?” I ask, as I get closer.
Gently, he moves the grass aside, and there it is – the light-brownish cap of a barely visible, extremely well-hidden virno.
I watch him in awe as he digs up six more in the same spot, handing me each one. I immediately notice their unique smell – strong, earthy, and surprisingly pleasant and savory.
Luigi and I dive back into the search with a renewed sense of excitement and enthusiasm. We should have known better not to lose faith in the first place. "The first is the hardest to find," Zio tells us.
He is definitely right, because our lucky streak continues, (although personally, I find zero). But Zio's determination intensifies, and his pace, unbelievably, quickens. I never thought it would be difficult to keep up with a man his age. He does double, if not triple the work as Luigi and I combined, moving on to another spot of silvery grass before we have even kneeled down to check our own. He seems to have the mountains memorized, remembering specific spots where he has found them before.
Just after 2p.m. we decide to call it a day and head back to the car, which by now is quite far, and involves a tough uphill hike. (My amazement for the physical stamina of this man only increases.)
“It has to rain,” Zio says, peering into the bag half-full with mushrooms. “If it had rained yesterday, this bag would be filled to the brim.”
Luigi and I assure him that it’s ok. After all, the day certainly wasn’t wasted. We spent a day in nature, breathing in fresh air. We were introduced to a skill that might soon be lost with Zio’s generation. And most importantly, we have enough mushrooms to make some of our favorite dishes, including frittata con funghi e pomodori secchi – Frittata with mushrooms and dried tomato. Or spaghetti con funghi e asparagi – spaghetti with mushrooms and asparagus - the asparagus, by the way, also wild, also found by Zio Michele.
"Directly from the mountain to the plate." That's certainly how they like to do things here in southern Italy :)