FESTA DEL FUNGO
My first trip to Mammola was for its number one claim to fame – pescestocco or stockfish, an adventure chronicled in Calabria: The Other Italy. This fall I returned for another of its celebrated culinary traditions – the mushroom.
The Festa del Fungo, organized by the town’s Amici del Fungo, takes place every year on the final Sunday of October, lasting from noon to midnight. Yes, in the Italian language it’s quite clear that mushrooms are a fungal growth, and these fruiting bodies flourish throughout Calabria. In fact, due to the climatic conditions in favor of such germination, mushrooms can be harvested in the region all year long.
The territory of Mammola (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable), situated between the slopes of the Aspromonte and Serre mountains in southern Calabria, happens to be a prime habitat for the mushroom, hosting large woods of beech, holm oak, tree heath, spruce, oak and chestnut. The porcini mushrooms incorporated in the various dishes served at the event were picked throughout Mammola’s woods, an area that encompasses 9,000 hectares (22,240 acres), most of which lie in Aspromonte National Park.
First things first: the food. The mushrooms to be consumed have been inspected and prepared in a traditional fashion. Long tables with benches have been set up in the large square at the base of the town that is laid out on a steeply angled hill. Festivalgoers line up outside a small, tented booth that sells tickets for adult and children’s meals. A large, covered serving area acts as the staging arena where the offerings of the day are scooped out of industrial-sized containers onto plastic and aluminum plates arranged on a cardboard tray. At the end of the line, cups of wine are filled from a wooden barrel.
The menu for 15 Euros: Bruschetta con dolcetta di peperoncino (bruschetta with sweet peperoncino spread), Pasta casereccia fresca con funghi porcini (fresh homemade pasta with porcini mushrooms), Fagioli fantasia con funghi porcini (Bean caprice with porcini mushrooms), Frittelle ai funghi porcini (Porcini mushroom fritters), Polpette ai funghi porcini (Porcini mushroom balls), Caldarroste (roasted chestnuts), Pane (Bread), Vino (Wine), Acqua (Water).
Interestingly, the child’s menu at 6 Euros had nothing at all to do with mushrooms: Panino con würstel (hotdog in a roll), Patatine (French fries), Bibita o acqua (Drink or water).
My dining companion threw them for a bit of a loop when he asked whether he could switch dish sizes for the pasta and beans. It seemed an unusual request, but the women were quite accommodating, as was the man at the end of the line when he asked for double wine and no water. I was happy with the portions as they were, although I did go back for more wine.
Sitting down to eat, I suddenly heard very loud drumming, the typical sort of pounding that accompanies the Giganti. The dancing Giants soon came into view, male and female puppet figures resting on the shoulders of their handlers whose feet engaged in a constant scurrying below. These traditional folk images often make appearances at festivals in Calabria – a dance of courtship between the fairer local girl and her darker suitor symbolizing the union of the indigenous population with the Moors who historically raided the coastlines of the region.
The entertainment didn’t distract my attention for long as I picked up my plastic utensils and rearranged my tray. The meal looked good, particularly considering the preparation of such large quantities.
I always enjoy a plate of homemade noodles and the mushrooms balanced nicely with the tomato-based sauce, their slightly firm yet delicate consistency yielding a correspondingly refined flavor. The smaller container of beans was adequate for me, the frittella was light and subtle, and the mushroom ball was surprisingly good, with the exterior breading giving way to an interior chock full of mushroom goodness.
While the repast focused on the porcini, a display table exhibited a vast array of mushrooms, both edible and not, gathered in the area by the Gruppo Micologico di Roccella Jonica (Mycological Group, in other words, people who study mushrooms). No one was manning the table when I passed by. Perhaps the group was hungry, having picked all those mushrooms to feed the crowd. After snapping a few pictures, I decided to take a little video of the table to memorialize the collection. Local accents and church bells lend authenticity to the recording: Festa del Fungo.
Stalls with fresh and dried mushrooms as well as various types under oil, other local culinary specialties such as honey, salami and cheese, pumpkin, cookies, wine and oil, and traditional crafts such as ceramics and basket weaving were also represented.
MAMMOLA, STROLLING IN AND OUT OF TOWN
The beautiful, sunny day begged a walk around the historic center, more of a climb than a stroll. Many once monumental homes could be identified as such only by the plaques the town government had attached to their crumbling stone walls – 15th to 19th-century shells of former glory, long abandoned in a community that underwent massive emigration both to northern Italy and abroad, particularly after the Second World War.
The Chiesa Matrice or Mother Church, whose original construction dates from the 12th to 13th centuries, is dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Bari. The town’s patron saint, however, is Nicodemus of Mammola. His relics, including his skull that is housed in an elaborate 16th-century bronze bust, are preserved in a chapel inside the church.
Having visited the nearby MuSaBa, Museo Santa Barbara earlier in the day, I immediately recognized the work of Nik Spatari, Mammola’s resident artist, in the frescos of the altar area. There even appeared to be an homage to his Concetto universale (Universal Concept, 1983), a large-scale work that can be seen from all over the valley and has become the museum’s symbol. Or, perhaps the design Spatari conceived as an image reaching to infinity, alternately viewed as the sun’s rays, a sailing ship or even a cathedral, is the artist’s tribute to the divine.
In that spirit, I continued my exploration of Mammola with a visit to the hills outside of town and a brief walk through the woods to Monte Kellerano where Nicodemus built his monastery of the Greek-orthodox faith back in the 10th century. Devotees descend, or ascend, on Saint Nicodemus’ Sanctuary every year during the period associated with his death on March 12th, as well as on pilgrimage excursions in the summer months.
Looking down as I walked through the fall leaves, I couldn’t help but notice the mushrooms. After all, that was the theme of the day. One variety caught my eye in particular; it appeared to be spray-painted gold. I hadn’t remembered seeing a golden mushroom on the long display table in town, but I couldn’t imagine the members of the aforementioned Mycological Group missing something so obvious, not to mention the Friends of the Mushroom. And with that, I inadvertently kicked off a few caps as I made my way back to the car in the evening twilight, thereby trampling any chance I may have had of becoming an Amica del Fungo.
Additional thoughts relating to the mushroom can be read on my post Calabrian Eateries: Mushrooms. And for more on special foods of Calabria, see the Incredible Bergamot, the Precious Diamante Citron, the Peperoncino Calabrese and simply the Best Licorice.
Interested in more of what there is to see and do in Calabria, the fascinating region in the toe of the Italian boot? Check out Calabria: The Other Italy, my non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this beautiful southern Italian region.
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