Stalking the wild: a mushroom hunter shares her secrets.
Maria Marivigna - known affectionately as ''The Mushroom Lady'' - has a special recipe for her favorite ''fungi.'' She carefully glazes them, stands them upright in an oven, and bakes them at 1,500 to 2,000 degrees F. for 8 to 10 hours.
They come out of the oven just the way she likes them. Perfectly done, hard as rocks, beautiful - and inedible, of course.
Miss Marivigna, you see, is an artist and ceramist of international fame. And when she isn't molding the botanically correct species out of clay, she's scurrying over wood and dale like a little Beatrix Potter creature, armed with trowel and basket, and usually with a string of wide-eyed enthusiasts in tow.
''Come, I show you,'' she says, grabbing my arm and pulling me out into her backyard.
''Look here. When you see the mushroom on the tree like this, it's too late. No tree can survive the mushroom,'' she adds, fingering a budding cluster of Pleurotus ostreatus - oyster mushrooms - on an old elm tree between her yard and a neighbor's. ''They taste very nice. There were some nice big ones here the other day, but someone took them away,'' she says, showing little concern for the loss of the mushrooms or even the tree.
A snooping neighbor may have beat her to this batch, but Miss Marivigna has a nose for sniffing out a mushroom's secret hiding place.
''I get a lot up the street in the cemetery,'' she whispers, her bright gray eyes twinkling. ''There's a lot that grow under the oak trees up there.''
Back in the house, a visitor is never out of sight of something emblazoned with a mushroom motif. On the knotty-pine porch, we sat under a large Italian poster brightly splashed with mushroom photographs.
''Guide per chi va a cercare I funghi. A guide for those who go looking for mushrooms,'' Miss Marivigna translates, pointing out word after word.
''And over on that wall is a plastic shopping bag with pictures of mushrooms. Very nice. From Sweden. No, from Poland,'' she corrects herself. On another wall a mushroom tea towel from France is neatly tacked up. And of course her exquisite ceramics stand in every available niche.
After weekly field trips with members of the Boston Mycological Club, she helps identify the species and saves new varieties to sculpture.
Inedible ones are tossed in the trash. Edible ones are tossed in a frying pan.
''I like to fry them in a little good olive oil very slowly, with maybe just a bit of fresh tomato, basil, and garlic,'' she says. ''Garlic is very good with the mushrooms. Then I eat them plain or put them on the pasta. If I don't use them right away, I just freeze them. They freeze perfectly. Maybe I give you some to take home,'' she says in her soft Sicilian accent.
''What about the common white mushrooms, Agaricus bisporus, found in the supermarket? Do you ever cook with them or substitute them in your recipes? Or the shiitakes, ever cook with either of them in the winter when you can't get out to get wild ones?'' I ask.
Miss Marivigna might not substitute the store-bought variety for wild mushrooms, but other members of the mycological club do.
Her favorite wild varieties?
''Ah, Polyporus frondosus. The cauliflower mushroom,'' she says with enthusiasm. ''Delicious. Maybe I have some downstairs in the freezer I give you to take home. Also I like Sulphureus polyporus. They call it the chicken of the mushroom world. It tastes like white meat of the chicken when you cook it and grows on almost all kinds of trees.''
Mushrooms may be a way of life with Miss Marivigna, but she doesn't take them quite as seriously as the ancient Romans did.
Holding up a stand of bright orange-capped ceramic mushrooms, she relates a bit of history: ''This one, Amanita caesarea, they call 'Food of the gods.' So delicious only the Caesars were allowed to eat them - under penalty of death. You find it around here, but not too many.''
Although most of the 2,000-odd wild mushrooms are indeed edible, Miss Marivigna recommends joining a mycological club if you're interested in eating the ones you pursue.
''If you don't know the mushroom, leave it alone or you could get into trouble,'' she warns. If you don't trust yourself to hunt them, several varieties can be found in specialty shops around the country, all carefully gathered and identified.
Dried shiitake mushrooms are available at any Chinese market or store. If you are served wild mushrooms in your favorite fine restaurant, ask the chef where he gets them.
For the following recipe you may use morel, honey mushrooms, Coprinus comatus , or Clitocybe muliceps. Mushrooms Alla Italiana 1 pint wild mushrooms 1/3 cup plum tomatoes, seeded 1/4 cup olive oil 1 large green pepper, in 1/4-inch slices 1/4 pound veal cutlet pounded, in 1/2-inch strips 1 clove garlic, minced Salt and pepper to taste
Quickly but thoroughly wash and drain mushrooms. Boil 4 to 5 minutes in salted water. Drain, place in heavy skillet over low heat, simmer until all moisture has been absorbed, stirring constantly to prevent sticking.
Remove from skillet and add tomatoes; cook over low heat until most of moisture has evaporated. Remove and add to mushrooms.
Rinse and dry skillet, add olive oil and heat. Add peppers and saute until almost soft. Remove and set aside.
Saute veal in the hot oil at medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove and set aside. Put mushroom-tomato mix back in pan and cook slowly 10 minutes.
Add veal and cook about 15 minutes. Add fried peppers and cook 15 minutes more. Add garlic, cover and simmer 5 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.
Serve as is, or over cooked pasta. How to prepare any wild or domesticated fungi
Trim stems and quickly rinse off mushrooms. Place in buttered ovenproof dish with a little olive oil, if desired. Cover, and cook in 350 degree F. preheated oven 10 to 25 minutes.
Cooking time depends on age and thickness of mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and squeeze a little lemon juice over mushrooms before serving.
Or omit lemon juice and add mushrooms to a favorite recipe.