Porcini Hunting In Tuscany

by Gillian Drake, October 2013
THIS TIME OF YEAR IN TUSCANY IT’S ALL ABOUT MUSHROOMS — hunting them, eating them, and talking about them. I hadn’t been a big porcini fan up until now, but their wild, woodsy mushroomy flavor grows on you — and after all, there is a sense of exclusiveness about them: they only grow wild, under certain conditions, in certain parts of the country side, at a certain time of year.
      This season started like all others — the locals shaking their heads, pursing their lips and looking up at the sky, saying it’s too warm/wet/cold for a good mushroom season. Que peccato! What a shame! But then the weather turns to rain, and on the first dry morning, we see our neighbors sneaking into the woods with little baskets to hunt for the elusive fungi.
      Porcini are of the boletus species, so called because they resemble a small pig, or piglets — porco = pig, porcino = small pig, with porcini being the plural form. They grow shrouded in leaves under ancient oak and chestnut trees, and there are plenty of those around here — we are in northern Tuscany, surrounded by forests and rushing streams, rather than in the south with the more classic and familiar Tuscan landscape of undulating fields, white country lanes and groves of cypress trees.
      On Sunday we went with some Italian friends to the local restaurant, Da Remo in Monzone, for their annual porcini festa, where, like little piglets, we pigged out on porcini. Pasta with porcini or mushroom salad to start, fillet steak or veal with porcini for the main course, and a side dish of deep-fried porcini, tempura style. I told our friends that one of Cape Cod’s most famous dishes is fried clams, vongole fritte, and they thought that was a great idea. Why hadn’t anyone thought of that before? Thankfully, no one had thought of porcini ice cream, and dessert was delicious panna cotta.
      Porcini are quick and simple to cook: slice thin, saute in olive oil, season to taste, and toss in a handful of chopped parsley, and ecco presto! it’s done — delicious served over pasta. Cooking might take a few minutes, but hunting them can take hours and you realize why they are sold at the market stalls for up to $20 a pound. On the weekends, our country lanes fill with cars of city people coming to the countryside to hunt for mushrooms, but unless they know where to look, they will go home with no more than a basket of chestnuts. The locals like to go it alone — they know where to look, and jealously guard their favorite spots.
      Our final guests of the season, a delightful family from Australia, had been out early one morning and came across our neighbor Pino who was furtively mushroom hunting in the depths of the woods. Pino gave them a mushroom, which is like giving someone a piece of gold, and when they got back to the house, he arrived with a small bag full, which was extremely generous of him. We take Pino and his wife Mima to the market every Tuesday, as they don’t have a car, and they repay us however they can, usually with fresh eggs, but this time, with porcini! We cooked them up that evening and all gathered under the long table under the grape arbor for a last outdoor meal of the season, lingering long into the night over biscotti and vin santo. The children had said they didn’t want any pasta with mushrooms, but when they’d had a taste, they came asking for more! Sadly, there were no more that evening, we’d eaten every last morsel, but I was glad that it was not only I who was a convert to the mystique of porcini mushrooms. Two seven-year-old boys are on their way back to Australia with a yearning for the pungent flavor of porcini mushrooms, something to remind them of their week spent exploring the woodlands and meadows of Tuscany.

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