The puffing pair galloped excitedly towards a woman who was gardening in a yard nearby.
“Funghi,” they chorused. The taller of the two shoved a large, bulging bag beneath her nose while his companion danced around her in delight. “Grande funghi.”
Mushrooms are among the great multitude of things that excite Italians. Especially after a rain shower, flocks of fungaioli (mushroom pickers) head off into the woodlands in search of their quota – there are bag limits, usually three kilograms per person per day – of porcini, ovoli, chanterelle, pinaroli, russola and the like.
On this particular day, however, as we made our way into a cool, damp thicket in the Futa Pass, which is in the Apennine Mountains in the Mugello region of Tuscany, we were not in pursuit of edible boletus. This time we were hunting “numero-uno sus scrofa non grata”. In other words, we were after the unruly and highly destructive cinghiale (wild boar).
Although they were hunted close to extinction by the early 1900s, these short-legged, bristly-bodied beasts are in abundance in Italy these days. With the demise of predators like wolves and bears, and the introduction in the 1990s by hunters of Eastern European species to bolster native stock, there are approximately 150 000 wild boars snuffling and trashing their way through Tuscany.
Sows bear litters of up to 15 piglets twice a year. And, despite the fact that squadrons of fervent hunters (there are apparently 800 000 registered hunters in Italy) cull more than 30 000 every year, they cannot make a significant dent in the number of feral hogs that roam, by and large, the area’s hilly regions in herds of about 20, which are called sounders. The problem is wild boars are destructively indiscriminate in their eating habits and, in addition to foraging in forests, they regularly trash vineyards, vegetables, orchards, gardens and fields.
As a result, most Tuscans prefer to see wild boar on the menu than scuttling through the undergrowth or across their farms. The flesh of wild boar is readily available from the macellaio (butchery). Because the meat is generally leaner than other pork, it usually needs some tenderising and is often marinated before being roasted or stewed and is often served with things like apples, wild berries, prunes and juniper berries.
It was clear, within a just few steps along the moist and spongy path, that swine were all around us. Their nocturnal rooting and furrowing littered the forest floor, and trail after trail of fresh trotter tracks sprinkled the footpath in all directions. Occasionally we spotted the smooth lower reaches of a tree trunk, which was – explained my 14-year-old son, being the family’s resident creature, hunting and fishing expert – obviously regularly used as a “rub” by itchy backed hogs. We heard sporadic scampering through the bush in the distance. At one stage, I was quite sure I could feel a little pair of piggy eyes tracking my every move.
Suddenly, my husband, who was walking some distance ahead, yelled loudly, “This way, this way. Come over here quickly.”
My heart pounded as I hurried in his direction. Would I really get the opportunity to shoot a live wild boar? Would it stand still long enough so I could get a good shot? Would it be fierce? How big would it be?
I bolted around the corner to find the rest of the party staring down at their feet. There was no hog to be seen.
“Which way did it go?” I shouted, looking around frantically.
It emerged however, that there was no boar and never had been. Instead, we had stumbled upon a section of an ancient via militaire (military road), which we learned had been built by the Romans as they expanded their empire northwards as far back as 187 BC.
The road fell into disuse during the Imperial Age and was lost until 1979, when researchers began exposing sections of it between Bologna to the north and Arezzo, southeast of Florence. Today exposed stretches of the road total about 11 kilometres and, during our pursuit of wild boars, we were lucky enough to come across a segment of the road deep in the forest. The antediluvian thoroughfare was remarkable in its perfection and permanence. Despite the fact that the forest had closed over it for centuries, its edges were tidy and straight, and the rocks that had been used as paving were still neatly aligned and level.
So, no wild boars on this excursion. Rather, we had discovered an extraordinary piece of history.
As we strolled back through the forest, I mulled over the benefits of travelling with an eager hunter and fisherman.
Some days earlier, as we wove our way past the startlingly white marble quarries in the Apuan Alps in Northern Tuscany, in search of a couple of hours fishing for our young enthusiast, we happened upon on one of the most delightful spots I have ever visited in Europe.
The ancient little hamlet of Isola Santa, with its ramshackle stone houses with slate roofs and impossibly narrow alleyways, is located alongside a small lake in the steep valley of Turrite Secca in Garfagnana.
Although, besides Gabriele di Mazzei and chef Sede, who operate Ristorante da Giacco in the village, there is evidence that others live there – I noticed some laundry hanging on a line and saw that a lawn had been freshly mowed – we did not see another living soul during our afternoon there.
The village, which is dominated by a church whose image is mirrored in the blue water of the lake, was deserted until recently. The restaurant is leading its revival and a small guesthouse recently began welcoming fishing enthusiasts.
Gabriele and Sede’s menu comprises largely locally sourced ingredients, including “porcini mushrooms, ovules and agarics, truffle, local meat, homemade pasta, polenta, wild boar and local kid”. (The latter, we clarified, is goat and not – as my son speculated somewhat wide-eyed – the reason that we saw no evidence of children in the village.) Meat is grilled over an open wood fire and Ristorante da Giacco’s tasting menu of Tuscan dishes, paired with a bottle of Chianti, is a delightful introduction to the gastronomy of the area.
The deep lake is encircled by a well-worn path that twists and turns beneath a fringe of beautiful, old and very tall chestnut trees. The large brown trout that glide restfully through the water are fat and slow, as our fisherman discovered when he happily landed a glistening three-kilogram trophy on the mossy banks of Isola Santa.
Indeed, you never know what you might come across when you travel in the company of a hunting and a fishing aficionado.
“So, Mom,” he said, interrupting my rumination as we headed back through the forest of the hidden swine at Futa Pass. “It’s a pity we didn’t find any boar. It would have been great if you could have got a shot of one for an article for The Weekender.”
(First published in The Weekender in August 2009.)