Mushroom Madonna

A day with Tonti Agostina, champion mushroom hunter

"Being in nature is more useful than going to church," says Tonti Agostina while grabbing a porcini mushroom. "You realize who is God and what he has created." (illustration by Olivia Wise)

The first thing I see when I walk into Tonti Agostina’s Urbino house is a cobalt blue mushroom as large as a flattened bowling ball. Until Tonti’s discovery, Ganoderma had gone unseen in the Le Marche region for 50 years. It is only one of many rare fungi that this award-winning mushroom hunter has encountered. The stairwell of her house, formerly owned by the Duke and Duchess of Ubaldini, is crowded with baskets of fresh and dried fungi. Tall bookshelves stand against the wall of the grand dining room where books about mushrooms are neatly stored and ready to study.

Tonti always has something to show and talk about with her guests. “Do you have a boyfriend?” she asks on my first visit. “No,” I answer. “I am single.” A huge grin emerges on her face as she grabs a photograph of a young man. “My nephew Alessandro is single and very good-looking. He’s an intelligent twenty-one-year-old studying Spanish and English, with curly blonde hair and blue eyes.” Following a coy wink and a slightly hysterical, yet contagious, laugh, Tonti insists that her Italian nephew must be married off to an American journalist one day.

Tonti is sitting beside me, a delicate, floral-patterned tablecloth in front of her. My guess is she is in her early seventies. She appears to be in good health, thanks, no doubt, to her active life outdoors. Her long, black hair is secured in a tight ponytail. Her olive skin glistens in the summer heat. A centerpiece of tall sunflowers stands in the corner of the room. Caged birds of red and orange hues cheerfully sing in the window. Framed original paintings by Salvador Dali hang on the walls; a mural depicting a regal Italian King covers the ceiling. Lying on the table are photographs of Tonti holding polished gold trophies throughout her years of mushroom hunting. I admire one that shows her next to the mayor of Urbania with yet another trophy; she is wearing a long pearl necklace.

Tonti reaches over, then drops something resembling a small pancake into my hand.

A basket of various mushrooms also sits on the table. Tonti reaches over, then drops something resembling a small pancake into my hand. It feels smooth on the top and rigid on the bottom. “Do you know what kind of mushroom this is?” To identify the object and to label it as edible or not, she opens what looks like a sacred book. I imagine it contains all the details an advanced mushroom lover would want to know. She points to the exact mushroom in hand, and, continuing in her teacher-to-student manner, explains: “The Mazza di tamburo: it looks like large drums with its tall stem and flat top.” Tonti throws her arms in the air, like a musician waving drumsticks in the air. “You might see some on the hunt around this time. Put them in water for a day to grow. It’s beautiful to see and eat.”

At age eighteen, Tonti, a former seamstress, moved from Cattolica to Urbino to marry into a wealthy family. She and her husband, Alessandro, raised two children, now middle-aged, and have been together for 53 years. With the help of a licensed expert, Tonti started mushroom hunting about 15 years ago to conquer her fear of the dark woods. After learning the basic ins and outs of the hunt, she became passionate about trekking through the high mountain tops and developed a motivation to be a champion—a mushroom hunting maven. “I love mushroom hunting because I can be one with nature,” she says. “When I am exploring the nature around me I can think about my family and God, if there is one.”

Instead of selling mushrooms for profit, Tonti shares what she finds. “I don’t ask for money; it’s not important to me. In life, you must give people the chance to know you. You can be the richest or best person in the world, but if you don’t communicate with the people around you, you are nothing. I like to be open with people and allow them to be part of my life.”

Three days after meeting Tonti, I find myself very much part of her life—in her Panda Fiat as it races toward Monte Catria in the center of the Apennine Mountains. Eager to get me on my first mushroom hunting excursion, Tonti turns sharply along the winding roads, her foot pressed heavily against the gas pedal. For a brief moment, her eyes leave the road and lock with mine in the midst of an account of her husband collecting 58 mushrooms during one outing. She accidentally swerves into the other lane, almost colliding with an oncoming Fiat, whose driver curses furiously in Italian. Gripping the wheel and leaning forward, Tonti laughs, honks her horn back at him, and continues to drive along fearlessly.

We arrive to the top of Monte Catria and walk to a desolate yet breathtaking field. Looking up, I see what appear to be hills on top of hills stretching endlessly toward the clear blue sky. I have a Julie Andrews moment, imagining myself singing, “The hills are alive…” as I run through the violet orchids and yellow alpine flowers. But my fantasy is interrupted when I realize that Tonti is already on the hunt, and I’m forced to chase after her.

I assume we’ll find an abundance of mushrooms, given the rain we’ve had; as Tonti explained earlier, it is best to go hunting four to five days after it rains. But as she weaves through grass almost tall enough to reach her knees, Tonti is having difficulty spotting anything, despite her deep concentration. Not one to let Mother Nature get in the way, she leaves the high grass, climbs up a steep meadow, and spots a cluster of small mushrooms in the ground. She bolts for the scene, gleefully shouting, “Fungi! Fungi!” They are flat, beige, furry… but, as Tonti explains, not edible. She cuts off a few to put in her basket anyway.

With the help of a certified mushroom hunting expert (to check for poisonous fungi), Tonti believes that anyone can safely partake in the hunt. “Although autumn is the best time to mushroom hunt,” she says, “you can still find plentiful fungi in the summer such as Russole, Gallinaccio and Porcini.” Summer festivals are held in the town of Acqualagna, where porcini mushrooms and beloved white truffles are available for purchase. The two differ based on where they grow; truffles are more rare as they sprout underground, while mushrooms grow above ground.

Whatever the results of the hunt, Tonti says each encounter with nature leaves her with an indescribable, spiritual feeling. “It’s a whole other world where I feel like I am the middleman between God and nature. Picking the fruits of God shows me what he has created.” She smiles and places the basket of inedible mushrooms in her trunk. They will be helpful in teaching mushroom basics to her next student. Tonti starts the drive back down Monte Catria, leaving behind her heaven on Earth, at least until the next hunt.

This article is from Urbino Now magazine’s Escursione section, which recommends day trips and activities within an hour or so of Urbino. Please view more magazine articles or order a complete printed copy of Urbino Now.

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About Stephanie Strickland

My time in Urbino has truly been indescribable. It’s not just the gorgeous city itself, but it’s the local people of this small town that have made the past couple weeks so special to me. Everyone here is so full of life and passionate about what they do; all they want is to share what they know with us, while learning a thing or two from us Americans as well. I will never forget my trip to Urbino, the rich lessons learned and the amazing people I met along the way.