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We stepped on a sun-bathed mix of overgrown fresh herbs and flowers, standing strong against impending mid-October, and crispy reddish-golden leaves, surrendered to the season, as we approached the flaky wooden door. Marco spotted a few more mushrooms between the leaves and kneeled to pick them and add them to his basket, where black-to-brown-to-orange-to-yellow hues of mushrooms were snugly grouped together.
‘here’, said Eugenia as she turned the key into the door. ‘This is Ophelia’s home. It’s all dusty – watch your steps.’
The chiaroscuro of lights in the corridor was dazzling. In these old homes, light filters in through the semi-closed windows and holes in the walls as if it was elbowing its way violently through, as chiaroscuro is a fight between the light crashing through obstacles that turn its path pitch black, and every centimeter of space becomes a ring for this sparring of cutting through space and blocking hits. It is a dance of celebration and mourning; of dawn and dusk, round every corner and every piece of furniture.
It is such a fitting mood for abandoned places and for abandoned hearts.
A dusty green table was sitting on a corner, topped by an old scale and flecks of dust. In the old kitchen, a stunning traditional Friulan brick and cast iron stove sat in a corner. Dark green wooden chairs were scattered all around the house – one still hosting a newspaper with tattered, yellowing pages, as if waiting for someone to return.
Ophelia’s ghost seemed to be there still, sitting next to the window on that azure floral cushion, hit by the early afternoon Fall sunlight.
‘Who’s Ophelia?’ I asked.
‘She was a cousin of ours,’ Eugenia replied. ‘This house has been empty since the seventies. It is falling to pieces, which is too bad. It is such a beautiful house.’
So I started wondering about all the chairs that are left empty, and about the feeling that these 100-year old buildings carry with them: presences can be felt. There are places that still hold souls within. Once you start visiting these buildings, you can clearly tell the difference between walking into a new apartment, or any abandoned building. They sit, like an elderly person left alone, dead without notice: they will always carry the nostalgia of those who took care of them and saw them grow old and weary.
I did not ask what life Ophelia led, but I imagined it as I climbed the crackly wooden stairs and stepped on those still beautiful worn floorboards, and touched the light, tattered floral curtains, filtering the light through the dust.
I wondered wether she waited for someone, gazing out the window from her kitchen, where the stove was lit and warmed the room along with the sun rays. I wondered wether she had a lost boyfriend, in those mountains in Friuli where both wars were so ferocious, and she waited to hear footsteps on the crackling golden leaves, on the snow, on the grass, on burnt nettles.
I wondered wether she lay awake at night, thinking what she would cook on that stove, after gathering the wood to light it up, and wether her chairs would fill up, and with who. I wondered wether there was an empty chair she wished could have a host.
I wondered wether she braided her hair or she kept it short, and wether she tied it with flowers and fresh aromatics in the spring. Ophelia, the drowning damsel of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, princess of nothing but her own dreams.
I wondered who her footsteps could wake up in late evenings, when the house was cold and floorboards are too noisy when walked on, embers still faintly burn in the stove, and a can of fresh, unpasteurized cow’s milk sat outside in the cold, starry night. There are no lights in Faedis, tiny her village, except for those of her home.
But, most of all, I wondered what Ophelia cooked in that stove of hers. With butter and cheese that they made at home, and mushrooms they picked from their garden, and buckwheat and corn flour, what could her favorite dish be?
Could it be a soft, creamy polenta, topped with a fondue of latteria or malga cheese – a dish called suf in Friuli? Or could it be polenta with morchia – corn flour stir-fried in butter? Could it be cjalsons – ravioli stuffed with herbs and cheese and dressed with butter and cinnamon? Or foraged mountain herbs, like nettles, silene, mint and mallow, cooked in a frittata from her hens?
As I looked out the windows and into the stove, I imagined all these things.
‘What if someone like Ophelia added mushrooms to polenta gnocchi?’ I asked Marco, who was teaching me so much about Friuli cuisine.
‘Well, I’d say she either went out and foraged some or that she was quite wealthy,’ he laughed. ‘They’re in season now, but they aren’t an everyday occurrence.’
When we exited the house we all hiccuped back to reality. It is what happens when you exit places with souls trapped within: you wonder wether you have really been inside, and wether the past ten minutes really happen at all. Then you look back at the closed door and wonder wether someone actually whispered all those thoughts in your ears or if it was all a product of your imagination.
When we got back to Eugenia’s house, there were three grandmas in aprons making butter. Their stove was hot and a kettle was boiling on top of it. A sturdy woman was shaking milk solids in a large jar, and another one was preparing the ice.
‘See? we’ll add the ice to the jar, and the butter will get solid. Then we’ll shape it.’
Another woman brought in a bucketful of freshly squeezed milk.
‘It’s the right time to go and forage herbs,’ said one of the women. ‘We could make frittata. We should also start the water for polenta…‘
Here, in this house, all the chairs around the table were sat on, except one.
Marco started the polenta – a coarse, delicious polenta from Socchieve, full of black specks – and cooked the mushrooms in what I thought was too much butter. He is one of those extraordinary people who can cook in a shirt and dress pants and not get a single bit of food on himself.
I poured the tea.
‘Who is the extra cup from?’ they asked.
I accidentally poured one too many. I must have though Ophelia was there, gazing outside the window at her own home from the empty chair.
‘I’ll have two,’ I said.
Polenta ‘gnocchi’ are a dish, as said above, born to use leftover polenta. Polenta is one of the most common ingredients in Friuli, where wheat is almost nonexistent but there are several varieties of delicious ancient corn. Recipes from Friuli are simple, as, back in the early 1900s, it was one of the poorest regions in Italy. But its food, which varies from the earthy and fresh mountain flavors and down to the seaside, is some of the most interesting of the country and uses cinnamon and an immense array of cheeses widely.
This dish makes for a delicious veganizable (and gluten-free!) main course if you substitute olive oil for butter, and, since the mushrooms are so umami-rich, it will taste amazing without the cheese as well.
If using cheese and have no access to Montasio or Latteria, use Parmigiano or Grana to finish the dish, or any seasoned cheese you like and you have access to.
- 400g (14 oz) leftover polenta
- 3 tbsps butter (for a vegan version, use olive oil)
- Coarse salt for the water
- About 450g (1 lb) Galletti mushrooms, or a mix of your favorite mushrooms
- 4-5 fresh small porcini*
- 4 tbsps butter (for a vegan version, sub with olive oil)
- 2 tbsps olive oil
- 2-3 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
- A scant half cup (about 100 ml) dry white wine
- A couple sprigs of thyme, OR 5-6 sage leaves
- Salt and pepper
- Grated cheese to finish, preferably seasoned Latteria or Montasio (skip if vegan)**
- Clean the girolles and porcini, or any mushroom you are using, with a cloth and a brush, so that you get rid of all the residue of soil. Mine were very fresh and quite dirty, so I also rinsed them under cold running water and dried them with a tea towel. Cut the mushroom in slices or smaller pieces.
- Add the butter, olive oil, herbs and garlic to the pan and turn on the heat on medium. When the butter melts and starts to sizzle, turn the heat to medium-high, and let the butter sizzle for a few seconds more. Add the mushrooms and turn the heat to high. Sauté them (or stir) to coat them in fat. Deglaze with the wine, and sauté a few seconds more. Let the wine evaporate completely. Add about ¼ cup water, salt and pepper to taste, and cover. Cook for 5 minutes. At this point, the mushrooms should have released their water. If they did, continue cooking, covered, for 5 more minutes, then uncover and cook, stirring every now and then, for 5 more minutes.
- If you used a kind of mushroom that releases less water, cook them on medium, turning down the heat to medium-low, rather than on high.
- When done, remove the garlic cloves and herbs.
- Prepare a pot of water, bring it to a boil and lightly salt it with coarse salt.
- Cut the leftover polenta into ½ inch cubes, and dump them into the boiling water. Once they float, drain them. It should take about 3 minutes.
- Melt the butter or oil in a pan and, once it sizzles, add the polenta gnocchi. Stir-fry, tossing every now and then, and let each side get golden. Once ready, drain them from excess fat and toss them with the mushrooms.
- Serve hot, with a grating of cheese on top.
MORE THINGS USING POLENTA & GIROLLES MUSHROOMS
– This Girolle Mushroom Risotto by the ever-amazing Valeria Necchio (and her book Veneto, which is so so good and a must-have);
– Polenta Crostini with Mushrooms by Emiko Davies, who I had the privilege to taste and that are absolutely delicious (again, from her book Acquacotta which is so so good and a must-have);
– These beautiful Mushroom and Ricotta Tortellini by Twigg Studios, along with some stunning photos from Tuscany;
– The Mushroom Tagliatelle Betty Liu & I made together in Boston!!
– This (vegan) Pasta Bake with Mushrooms by The Blue Bride *insert heart-eyed emoticon* !!