I now completely understand why it costs 20 euros for a kilo of porcini mushrooms – it is hard work trekking through the forest to find them! As I scrambled through the bramble, ducked under prickly branches, and stumbled on rocks I realized that my romantic notion of wandering through the forest looking for mushrooms did not account for the fortitude and expertise actually needed. It was a fun and fascinating experience to start to learn about all the different types of mushrooms growing on the forest floor and to glimpse a sliver of rural Tuscan life.
Our teacher Serena invited us to her mother's country home about thirty minutes southwest of Siena, near Grosseto. No one else in the class could go, so I hopped in the car with her son Valentino and her mother Adrianna and the three of us made the scenic drive together using a mix of boisterous Italian, English, and sign language to communicate. Adrianna, who must be in her 70s, bought the abandoned farmhouse over thirty years ago and has lovingly rebuilt the entire property, planting fruit and olive orchards, tilling a large vegetable garden, and hosting visitors in the summer.
As Valentino and I returned from our hour-long porcini hunt (we found two – it is the end of the season), I saw that Adrianna had spent the entire time on her hands and knees weeding and replanting the artichoke patch. She wielded a heavy hoe with a strength and comfort that I could only imagine having now, much less in forty years. As she was re-planting the last artichoke she looked up at me with her hands in the dirt and a broad grin on her face and said “la terra e la vita” — the land is the life. It was an amazing privilege to spend the afternoon with a family who so appreciates the beauty of their land and puts in incredibly hard work to sustain it.