In late August, something takes hold of Italians. It’s not a fever as such, but a lust, a kind of earthy hunger. They’re hungry for mushrooms, for the porcini that sprout in the wooded hills of Piedmont, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Umbria and the hills in Veneto. The 16th-century Italian naturalist and botanist Costanzo Felici once described the mushroom as “a very eccentric and dangerous food, better kept away from the table than dished up on it”. After all, Roman emperor Claudius was said to have been fed a poisoned mushroom by his fourth wife Agrippina.
Yet Felici’s fears (and Claudius’ demise) have had little impact on Italy’s love of porcini. In late August, families set out for the hunting grounds once favoured by their ancestors. Armed with wicker baskets and coltelli per funghi – mushroom knives that feature a short, hooked folding blade at one end and a soft brush at the other for removing grit. In the low slanting light of an early autumn morning, the mushrooms – large and heavy – cast long shadows on the woodland floor, making them easy prey.
For many, the Boletus edulis or porcino (literally “little pig”) is king among wild mushrooms. It can grow up to ten-inches tall and a foot in diameter and weigh 1kg when mature. The mushrooms are brown and ochre with a white stipe or stem, and the most highly prized have a chocolate coloured cap, which when sliced forms a neat outline to the smooth and creamy pale flesh inside. They can be found in woodlands and forests throughout the northern hemisphere and grow in symbiosis with the trees, enveloping their root systems. Although porcini can be found growing in pine forests, the very best are closely associated with chestnut trees. And while it is never advisable to pick and eat mushrooms unless you’re experienced in collecting them, because of their size and features porcini are hard to confuse with poisonous species, which only adds to their attraction. They are picked across Europe: as ceps in France, steinpilz (stone mushroom) in Germany, herrenpilz (noble mushroom) in Austria, or as the wonderful eekhoorntjesbrood (squirrel's bread) in Holland.
But it is in Italy where this species of mushroom has the strongest cultural and culinary significance. Archaeologists have discovered mushrooms in the remains of a Bronze Age cooking pot found in Nola, now part of Naples. And Apicius, the collection of Roman recipes dating from the 4th or 5th century CE, features a number of mushroom dishes. In Paolo Uccello’s early Renaissance painting “The Hunt in the Forest” (c1470), the forest floor is littered with mushrooms as the huntsmen on horseback thunder past. And by the 16th century, the celebrated botanist and medical doctor from Siena, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, was reporting that in Rome it was all the rage to grow your own mushrooms using special stones impregnated with mushroom spores.
Porcini taste of musk and moss and a fresh forest after rain. They are heady with umami – that rich savoury taste that’s meaty and brothy and satisfying at once. With fresh porcini, minimal intervention and preparation is best; treat them simply – sautéed with butter or used as a stuffing or accompaniment to pasta – and they come alive. In Tuscany, for example, the large mushroom caps are broiled like a fine piece of steak and served with the same reverence – a dash of rich green olive oil, some garlic and a flourish of fresh herbs. Freshly picked porcini mushrooms will last a day or two, and local markets have stalls groaning with giant fungi. Country restaurants near particularly famous hunting grounds embrace the fervour too, displaying porcini in their windows and offering several daily specials during the brief hunting season. And as quickly as the mushrooms appear, the supply of fresh porcini ends abruptly with the first frosts. But any glut can be carefully cleaned, sliced and threaded onto long strings for drying. The process concentrates the flavours as 8090 per cent of the weight is lost through evaporation. The resulting dried porcini are an expensive but versatile winter ingredient. They’re cooked with a little pancetta in risotto, used in pasta sauces, mixed with chicken liver paste and spread on crostini as an antipasto or stirred into stracotto, a rich slow-cooked beef and wine stew: buon appetito!