Evenings on Prince Edward Island already smell like autumn. On the boardwalk at the end of each day the air is crisp, and the wind caresses your face in anticipation of long sleeves and steaming mugs of chamomile tea and honey.
During those walks, my mind flies to Italy, to my parents’ home, to a time that is another life, another me. I wonder what this year’s harvest will bring, if anything. Too hot, too sticky, too muggy to make predictions. Too little rain, cool temperatures, perfect conditions. It seems nature is following the curve of my father’s life. It is getting harder and harder to drive those two hours and a half to reach his true home, where his heart will always be. Nature understands, nature knows, nature helps. If you can’t make, I will give no life to mushrooms, this year, she decides.
I wonder how many? How big? How often?
In my other life, from late August well into fall, my days in Italy began with strong coffee scents entering my room, and soft footsteps of early risers getting ready to leave. Four o’clock. My dad could never resist the call of his Dolomites. He would leave for days at a time, and come back only when he was satisfied, when he had enough (but when you adore something, when is enough, enough?).
Once home, the process of calling everyone to task would begin. The prize was porcini mushrooms. The biggest and most perfect-looking (in size and colour) would be meticulously cleaned (never washed) and frozen as they were. The best, the strongest, were kept in ice-cold conditions. They would be saved for special occasions, roasted whole, and served with meat and polenta. Once cut open, they would release the scent of the forest. Everyone at the table, staring at these wonders of nature, would find themselves as if at the foot of the Marmolada.
The other mushrooms, the less perfect, the smallest, the not so pretty, were thoroughly brushed, wiped, sliced ever so thinly, spread out on newspaper and left to dry in the fall sun. Year after year, I witnessed a delicate and magical process: the sun would leave its gentle kisses on every slice of mushroom. My father would check and double check, making sure one side was properly dried before turning it over. Equal numbers of sun kisses had to be left on both half moons for the magical spell to be complete, to fully work. The newspapers were placed outside every morning and taken inside every evening at sunset. During those days, everyone was vigilant, everyone played a role. We were all ingredients in the most powerful incantation. I remember once rushing home from an outing with friends because of menacing clouds. Rain might interrupt the magic and ruin the harvest.
Once fully dry, the mushrooms were delicately placed in airtight glass jars. My dad’s movements were as graceful and as careful as those of a surgeon performing a life-saving operation. The placement of slices in the jars was not done at random. The biggest and most beautiful slices, the ones that did not have imperfections, were placed against the glass so that they were the first that people saw and admired.
When I lived in Edinburgh, I often brought back loads of mushrooms. My dad would choose them individually, giving me the best ones. I would make them last for as long I could. Sometimes, I would just open the jar and stick my nose in it – a full inhaling of the Dolomites and I would be satisfied for weeks at a time. When I did use them, it would only be for the recipes I deemed worthy of their sacrifice. After reviving them in water and cooking them with olive oil, garlic and chopped parsley, I would use them to top homemade pizza, along with speck and mozzarella di bufala; or they would be turned into a creamy risotto ai funghi porcini, a fall favourite; or as a side dish accompanying salsicce e polenta.
Here on the Island it is not the same. I can’t bring myself to go mushroom picking. I do not know how and, even if I did, I probably still wouldn’t do it. It is an act too close to home, too close to my heart, impossible to duplicate.
Last year I went to Montreal for the first time. Following the advice of a friend, my husband and I went to an Italian grocery store. There I found dried porcini mushrooms from Italy. We bought some and brought them back to the Island. When I opened the package and stuck my nose in it, I did not find myself at the foot of the Dolomites. The main ingredient was missing. Love.
Giulia De Gasperi lives in Summerside, PEI. Her literary agency, Radici Translation and Wordcraft Ltd., promotes Canadian and Italian literature in Italy and North America, www.radici.ca.