This autumn, in the central food-market in Florence, the capital of Tuscany in northern Italy, an unusually dry summer and lack of early-autumn rain meant that most of the fresh fungi on offer at a time of year — mid-October, when woodland fungi is at its most prolific — had come from elsewhere. Supplies, said the sharp-eyed mushroom merchant patrolling the precious crop heaped high on his corner stall, were brought in from Croatia, Bulgaria and even as far away as Romania.
A freshly harvested treasure
The only locally gathered crop — bright as Chinese lanterns amid the imported crates of brown-and-cream porcini, golden chanterelles and packages of dried soup-mushrooms — was a box of gleaming orange globes the size of a small chicken egg, each cupped its snow-white volva, the protective bag whose presence is a sign of youth and freshness. A few of the shiny globes had spread into little red-gold umbrellas, pushing upward out of their grow-bag on slender stalks to reveal evenly spaced pale yellow gills just visible through the translucent rims of the caps.
These, I had no need to be told since they were so recognizable, were the most highly esteemed of all southern Europe’s autumn fungi, Amanita caesarea — otherwise known as Caesar’s mushroom. The shape and color were unmistakable even though I, in spite of many years trawling the wildwood in search of edible treasure, had never encountered them before in the flesh. The Romans called it “the king’s mushroom,” and it’s native to the wildwood of southern Europe, including the oak and chestnut woods of Italy and the chestnut and pinewoods of northern Spain. The Romans loved it, modern Italians adore it and the Catalans and Basques pay ridiculously high prices for it in the markets of Barcelona and San Sebastian.
A dangerous fungi family
A. caesarea belongs to an untrustworthy family, the agarics or amanitas, which might account for the caution with which it’s treated in other regions to which it is native. Although its parchment-tinted flesh, glowing orange cap and generous basal-bulb makes it easy to distinguish from other members of the clan, many mushrooms in this family are highly toxic. Some even come with a warning in their names: A. virosa (pure white) is otherwise known as Destroying Angel; A. pantherina (brownish with white blobs), is the poisonous Panther Cap; most dangerous of all is the aptly named Death Cap, A. phalloides (greenish cap, white flesh), for which no antidote is known; while A. muscaria, Fly Agaric, the fairy-tale scarlet toadstool with white blobs, was used as an intoxicant by marauding Vikings, and as a powerful hallucinogenic in religious rituals throughout Europe and Asia in pre-Christian times.
In Tuscany, Caesar’s mushroom is eaten raw and young. Once supplies are found or purchased, don’t delay — the shiny balls continue to develop even when plucked from their beds. The flesh is firm and a little elastic and holds its shape under the knife. The flavor and fragrance are fresh hazelnuts and toasted chestnuts. The Italian way is to slice them very thinly, spread in a single layer on a china plate, dress with a little olive oil and a drop of white-wine vinegar — something delicate such as Oro de Modena — and, if you wish, dust with a few specks of finely chopped garlic and parsley, season and leave to infuse for half an hour.
If, on the other hand, you prefer what the Catalans call ou de reig as they like it in Barcelona, place the caps face down on a hot metal plate brushed with olive oil, grill for a minute or two, turn carefully, salt lightly and cook the other side. Serve on thick-cut toasted bread rubbed with garlic and trickled with olive oil.
Among the Basques, where A. caesarea is known as kuleto, the first of the crop is gathered at the end of August and the season runs till the first frosts. In the men-only cooking clubs of the region, you might find them in a delicate dish of scrambled eggs served as an appetizer for the national dish, marmitako, a fabulous tuna fish stew.
Basque Scrambled Eggs With Caesar’s Mushrooms
Maria Jose Sevilla, in her masterly “Life and Food in the Basque Country” (published 1989 and still the best), gives instructions for scrambled eggs prepared with any wild mushrooms, a combination that does justice to the fine flavor and intense aroma of woodland fungi.
- Wipe the mushrooms with a damp cloth to remove any loose dirt, then remove the volva and trim and slice the stalks. Break the caps up into smallish pieces with your fingers. Heat a frying pan and add a little olive oil. Wait till it’s hot, then add the mushroom pieces and sprinkle with a little salt. Cook on moderate heat till the mushrooms yield up their liquid and begin to sizzle.
- Meanwhile, lightly beat the eggs together in a bowl with a fork (don’t mix too vigorously), then stir the mixture into the mushrooms as soon as the mushrooms begin to sizzle (don’t let them brown). Fold them over the heat for a minute or two with a wooden spoon until just creamy. (Remove before the eggs begin to set.)
- Serve immediately on slices of bread brushed with the rest of the olive oil and toasted on a dry pan.
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.
Image: Watercolor of Caesar’s mushrooms. Credit: Elisabeth Luard