When autumn approaches, ‘one off’ stalls, selling mushrooms that people have collected, join the regular stalls in the market. Pride of place goes to the Cardoncello mushroom, which grows in the ‘Murgia’ area – the stony elevated plateau that occupies more or less the centre of Puglia.
Cardoncelli Mushrooms, or Fungi Cardoncelli, grow as parasites on the roots of plants from the Eryngium family (think Sea Holly), hence their name, Pleurotus Eryngii . Cultivation of these mushrooms, from spores collected from the wild variety, has prolonged their period of availability and enabled them to reach a wider audience, in the States and Australia for example.
Cardoncelli have a firm, meaty texture, white flesh with a darker cap and a subtle flavour and scent.
Highly prized, even in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, they were considered an aphrodisiac and their consumption was frowned on by the church! I can’t say I have noted their aphrodisiac qualities, but they are certainly delicious, combine well with other ingredients and are very versatile, holding their own whether roasted, grilled, fried or stewed.
Typically, they are combined with ‘pomodori al filo’ (the little tomatoes, which are strung up in, bunches for winter use) and or sausages, to make rich pasta sauces, stuffed with breadcrumbs, garlic and parsley and roasted, or ‘trifolati. – sliced and fried with garlic and chili with the addition of finely chopped parsley at the end.
One of my favourite ways of cooking them though, is in the oven, layered with potatoes in an earthenware dish ‘Tiella di Funghi ‘Carduncedd’ in the local dialect. As with many local dishes, everyone has their own version. Some people add onions to the mushrooms and potatoes, with or without garlic; most recipes include liberal amounts of parsley and have breadcrumbs on the top. I prefer to omit the onions, and add a little fennel seed, which brings out the flavour of the mushrooms beautifully.
You will need:
300 grams of Cardoncelli mushrooms (serves four as a side dish)
200 grams of potatoes (the waxy rather than floury variety)
1-2 cloves of garlic – to taste
A large bunch of flat leaved parsley
Extra virgin olive oil
A pinch or two of fennel seed (optional)
Breadcrumbs (best made in a food processor with slightly stale bread)
A shallow oven dish (or you can use a smaller, deeper one, and repeat the layers)
Prepare the mushrooms, by brushing off any dirt or grit (use a brush, or damp kitchen paper if you must, but do not wash the mushrooms) and then slicing
Peel the potatoes and slice them thinly (no more than a centimetre thick)
Finely chop the garlic and Parsley
Prepare enough breadcrumbs to cover the dish.
Spread a fine film of oil over the base of the dish and add the potatoes, overlapping as necessary. Season and sprinkle with garlic, parsley and a little more oil. Arrange the mushrooms on top, salt, parsley, garlic a little fennel seed if you are using it and a little more oil. Finally spread the breadcrumbs on top ; before completely covering the mushrooms pour a little water (a third of a glass at most) down the side of the dish
Cook at 180 degrees (fan oven) for around 40 minutes, depending on your oven.
Traditionally this dish is served warm rather than hot.