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…
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