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Monday, 01 May 2006

Fall in Italy: Festival of the Mushrooms

Written by Diana Armstrong
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photo by Meghan Fallon

Gloria, our housekeeper, appears on my back door step to announce that there is a mushroom festival in a little town called Sipicciano.  A village not far from Orvieto in Umbria.  This village does not appear on any map I own.  It is perched on the edge of the Tiber Valley right on the border of Umbria and the Lazio. Like an ancient eagle, it looks down from its aery onto vineyards and olive groves  and over in the far distance towards all the traffic speeding  between Rome and Florence.


Beautiful color posters show delicious looking mushrooms all enticingly displayed on copper.  The posters are all over our little town of Lubriano.  Gloria says the town is near Graffignano and it is only about a fifteen mile drive down the Tiber Valley.  We have friends staying with us in our small house in the middle of village. They are anxious to taste the famous porcini mushrooms of our area which are available for a very short season in October and November.

We mark the date on the calendar.  So on a rainy Saturday afternoon I put a cut of veal in the oven to roast slowly while we are gone. I prepare it in the Lubriano way: browning it on top of the stove in olive oil, butter and garlic and then transfer it into a heavy casserole. I add a little wine and place it in the oven to slowly cook while we are gone. We will bring back plenty of mushrooms to serve with this veal roast. We set off with our three friends from the USA for the Festival of Funghi.

We wander down through Castiglione in Teverina. Through beautiful rolling countryside and we stop at the stunning winery of La Madonna della Macchie to get our attitudes adjusted. We come to Graffignano. It  is another of the ancient towns in  the Tiber Valley. Nothing grand like Orvieto or Cortona, but just a town built up high to get away from the marauding hoards of the many centuries past, whether it be Goths, Visigoths, Romans, Charlemagne, or Hannibal -- you name them, they have all tried hard to maraud this valley on their way to the big prize of Rome.

After various stops asking locals where the mushroom festival is, and getting many puzzled looks, we eventually see Sipicciano which appears to be a village of about 500. We had not seen one sign for a Mushroom Festival since we left Lubriano.  What we find here, is a village surrounded by massively fortified walls. Unlike its neighbor Orvieto, nothing has been restored.  There is not a soul in sight. Eventually we come upon a church and happen to notice a few people scurrying to the back with baskets. We venture to follow.  What we find here is a hall behind the church.  It soon becomes clear that this is a festival of "Mushrooms NOT to eat" rather than "Funghi to eat.”  And here we are with raging appetites for the Funghi with Lasagna, Funghi with Polenta and Funghi with Vitello and Funghi with Bistecca and here we find ourselves at a festival of mushrooms NOT to eat.




photo by Karen Tobia

The display is quite incredible, there are mushrooms that will kill you, mushrooms that will give you hallucinations and mushrooms that are merely toxic.  There is not a delicious fat porcini mushroom amongst the whole lot.  Locals arrive with baskets at the back door of the church hall and are greeted by a very official man with a mushroom reference book. He picks up their mushrooms in his gloved hand and analyzes them. They are then categorized and displayed for all to see. From the display of about 150 mushroom varieties there are only about 10 that are edible.  A good rule of thumb is don't go out picking mushrooms because they will probably kill you, give you hallucinations and at the very least make you throw up.


After being chastised through this very sobering display of toxins, we set off back home, vowing to season the veal roast that is at this point simmering in my oven with something other than mushrooms. The roast is awaiting the final garnish of porcini that would have been garnered from the Funghi Festival.

On our way home, we decide to return to  Castiglione in Teverina and to the local winery Madonna della Macchie  in order to save the day. The owners are a little surprised to see us back so soon.  They greet us with a bottle in each hand filled with  their Orvieto Classico – a cheery slightly fruity white wine. They also see we look hungry and bring out a lovely wheel of local soft Umbrian Pecorino cheese.

Feeling a little consoled, we drive back to Lubriano.  My friend suggests that we go to Luigina’s  fruit and vegetable shop on the off chance she had edible mushrooms (after viewing the display at the mushroom festival I think this is a very brave remark.)  As we walked into Luigina's shop what greets us is a gift from heaven.


photo by Karen Tobia of author

In a basket right by the door is a mushroom of such grand proportions it is astounding. There is just one mushroom for sale. It is  about one foot square.  "Fragrante" says Luigina.  We smell it and we are all sold on this one mushroom which actually weighs 4 pounds.  She says they call it “mouse ears” in Lubriano as it resembles about one hundred mouse ears all clumped together. The main thing going through our minds at this point is that it looks absolutely nothing like anything we had seen at the anti-mushroom festival. We buy it.




Half and hour later our dinner is ready with its mushroom topping. I cut the giant mushroom into one inch cubes and sauté it in olive oil, garlic and butter. I then add porcini mushroom stock and let it simmer until the stock has completely evaporated. I let the chopped mushrooms crisp up to a toasty brown.  And then at the final moment before serving I add the cream.


photo by Diana Armstrong

Gloria, our housekeeper, arrives just as we are sitting down to dinner. She is not surprised by anything.  “These village people are crazy, it is because of their old stone houses, the radiation in the rock is causing them to be crazy to put out a poster like that!”



Driving Directions and Local Information:


Between Florence and Rome. Exit the Autostrada at Attligliano Exit, which is 17 miles south of the Orvieto.  Head north west to the towns of Sipicciano, Graffignano. The closest Restaurant is Mola Solis on the road about 8 miles north from the Attigliano Autostrada Exit going towards Castiglione in Teverina.

Madonna della Macchie Winery is  just 2 miles north of  Castiglione in Teverina.


Exit the Autostrada at Orvieto and drive south for five miles towards Baschi,  turn right at signs to Lubriano (Restaurants in Lubriano: Il Vecchio Mulino and il Frontoio).




Serves 10


One 4 pound. veal roast

1 cup olive oil, divided in half

1 stick butter divided in half

4 cloves garlic

Salt and pepper

1 cup Orvieto Classico or dry white wine

4 cups assorted mushrooms cut into grape size pieces

1 cup porcini mushroom bouillon* or vegetable bouillon

1 cup cream.


Heat a heavy casserole on a medium high heat.  Brown the veal in half the olive oil and half the butter with the garlic..Season to taste. Pour the wine into the casserole, cover and place in a 325oF oven for three hours to simmer gently. About an hour before serving, heat the remaining olive oil and butter in a heavy saucepan and add the mushrooms, salt and pepper and cook over a high heat until lightly brown. Now add the bouillon and simmer uncovered until the stock has evaporated and the mushrooms get crispy. If desired, just before serving add the cream to the mushrooms and spoon over the roast just before serving.

*available in the USA at most Italian Food Markets


©Diana Armstrong Diana Armstrong is a cookbook author and travel writer who with her husband lives half the year in Denver, Colorado and the other half in the village of Lubriano, 15 mintues south of  Orvieto Umbria.

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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