Not far from the picturesque hill town of Orvieto, contadini – the Italian word for farmers, but generally accepted to mean “country people” – revel in the chance to head into the woods and fields and search for food. Every season, and almost every weather event, brings a call to forage. From prized delicacies such as porcini mushrooms or black and white truffles, to cucina povera (“poor people’s food”) – staples like bitter chicory and wild asparagus – Umbrians forage not because they have to, but because they can.
The summer rain has just let up in this tiny Umbrian village, and for many residents that means one thing: Time to grab a mesh bag and go hunt snails. The French may call them escargot and dress them up with garlic and butter, but in Italy, land snails are called lumache. They’re served shelled and stewed in a spicy tomato sauce with fennel and pepperoncino, or cracked red pepper. Smaller than the plump mollusks that show up on Parisian tables, lumache in red sauce are usually served as a second course, with unsalted Umbrian bread for making the scarpetta (the little shoe) for sopping up the sauce. You probably won’t find lumache in restaurants – you’ll have to luck into a dinner invite to someone’s private home.
The cars parked all along the edge of the woods are a telltale sign it’s porcini season, and all the city-folk have headed to the hills to hunt for these short, bulbous, brown-capped mushrooms. These cute fungi may look like they should be dancing and singing in a Disney film, but their rich, nutty taste make them a seriously coveted ingredient in seasonal risottos and soups, or on their own, battered and fried.
Late summer and early fall are the best times to hunt porcini; they require an abundant rainfall followed by several warm days, plus dappled sunlight hitting the forest floor. Find fresh porcini dishes at Trattoria da Gianfranco, a hole-in-the-wall locals’ spot in Trevinano, at the border of Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria. Wherever you go, read the fine print on the menu to make sure you’re getting fresh, not previously frozen porcini.
Black and white truffles
Porcini aren’t the only precious fungi the Umbrian ground gives up. In summer, tartufari, or truffle hunters, take their specially trained dogs and head to the woods at the crack of dawn, when the ground is still moist and fragrant – and, ideally, to get a rise on their competition. It’s a well-rehearsed ritual. The truffle hunters hide their 4WD trucks near sections of woods, some known only to them, head to just the right trees, and gently coax the dogs, which frantically sniff the ground and then, luck willing, start to dig for black summer truffles (Tuber aestivum).
Rarer and even more coveted are pungent, highly perishable white truffles (Tuber magnatum), which are found only from October to December, and only under very specific atmospheric and soil conditions. Prices vary wildly from year to year depending on availability. When the pickings are slim, a tartufaro can earn up to €3,000 per kilo of white truffles, and €100 per kilo for black.
Few foods can stand up to the truffles’ strong flavor and aroma, so whatever they’re served with is typically just a vehicle for the truffle – simple pastas and fried eggs are typical accompaniments. Find truffle dishes, as well as hearty Umbrian fare, including fresh game, at La Palomba in Orvieto.
Shoots, seeds and leaves
It’s tough to spot the thin stalks of wild asparagus as they sprout from the springtime woods. But slow, methodical walking is often rewarded with a bundle or two of these shoots. The contadini who know their woods know which patches of ground are most likely to yield wild asparagus, which is much thinner – and frequently much woodier – than its commercially grown cousin. It’s not a vegetable to be eaten as a side dish with hollandaise sauce; instead it’s served finely chopped in frittatas, risottos or pasta dishes.
Resilient wild fennel grows year round in fields, and in seemingly inhospitable locations along roadsides, among abandoned grapevines and in scraggly junkyards. The tall plant has fairy-like leaves, and sprouts clumps of delicate white and yellow flowers. Leaves are used to season roasted pork (porchetta) and game meats, and the dried seeds flavor a variety of dishes – they’re especially good on roasted potatoes.
Leafy green cicoria is ubiquitous in Umbria. It grows like mad year-round in virtually all conditions – sun shade, rain and drought. Though its literal translation is chicory, it bears little resemblance to its distant cousin, Belgian endive, which is also called chicory. Wild Italian chicory has an extremely bitter taste, exceeding even that of its close relative, dandelion greens. It’s served as a side dish, sautéed like spinach or kale, with olive oil, lemon and cracked red pepper.
The Hosteria di Villalba, a rustic eatery in the hills about 30 minutes from Orvieto, serves seasonal menus devoted entirely to erbe selvatiche, or wild greens. Its woodsy setting, with walking trails heading out in all directions, relaxed ambiance and a menu built around locally sourced, organic and foraged foods make it a great introduction to the cherished Umbrian tradition of “hunting” for the next meal.