Of all Italy’s fall foods, porcini mushrooms are among the most eagerly anticipated. The decisive, nutty flavor of the famous Boletus edulis gives depth and richness to dishes from risotto to soup, their high protein content make them an excellent substitute for meat, and the spongy underside of their massive caps melts down during slow cooking into a rich earthy sauce. The perfect blend of comfort food and gourmet specialty, fresh porcini are a highlight of any fall trip to Italy and can be found on menus from tiny trattorias to Michelin-starred restaurants.
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Porcini, which means “piglets” in Italian, refers to a number of different yet similar species, but the most prized by far is the Boletus edulis, or the King bolete, that grows from August through the fall. This species has a large cap that can reach almost a foot in diameter and is usually light or reddish-brown and slightly tacky to the touch. The underside of the cap is covered in a spongy material made of tiny tubes rather than gills, from which the mushroom releases its spores.
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In addition to the large cap, porcini have a club-shaped or bulbous stem that is dense and thick, strong enough to support the weight of the cap—with both the cap and stem, porcini can weigh over 2 pounds! These mushrooms tend to grow either individually or in small clusters of two or three, and sprout best during periods of warm weather interspersed with autumn showers. Though delicious when eaten fresh in the fall, porcini also dry well, retaining much of their original flavor to be used as a seasoning for dishes all year round.
An Expensive Delight
Porcini aren’t easily cultivated due to their mycorrhizal nature, which means that their underground mycelia threads only develop in symbiosis with the roots of the surrounding plants. This complex and delicate relationship is hard to duplicate outside the old-growth pine, chestnut, hemlock, and spruce forests that cover much of central and northern Italy, so almost all the porcini mushrooms found in markets and restaurants are carefully foraged by hand.
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Though you can find porcini imported from Eastern Europe and sold at a lower price, the most prized and flavorful mushrooms are those gathered by “fungaioli”, passionate local foragers who spend the fall days carefully picking their way through the undergrowth in search of porcini and other fall mushrooms. Often, truffle hunters will come home with their satchels filled to the brim with porcini as well, and will prepare dinner featuring both of these woodsy treasures.
If you would like to enjoy fresh porcini while traveling in Italy, you have a few options. The easiest, of course, is to simply sample these prized funghi while dining out. You’ll find dishes featuring fresh porcini on menus from Rome to the Dolomites, and can tuck into a plate of risotto ai funghi porcini, tagliatelle al boscaiolo (tossed with a variety of wild mushrooms), or funghi porcini alla griglia paired with a crisp red vino novello.
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You can also prepare a meal of porcini yourself by purchasing freshly foraged mushrooms at the local market. Be sure to shop only from a reliable source at an official market stall; though country roads are lined with makeshift stands hawking mushrooms, chestnuts, and other delights in the fall, produce sold at the market is more carefully checked. Porcini are edible, of course, but resemble a number of other related species that can be toxic (Boletus satanas is perhaps the most unequivocally named), so you don’t want to take any risks. Choose freshly picked mushrooms, avoiding those with dark, soft, or spotted caps that may be too mature. Also, examine the stalk for small holes, which indicate worms. Wild mushrooms are as organic as you can get, which means that you may find an insect or two when cleaning them.
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To take the flavor of fall in Italy home with you, pick up a bag or two of dried mushrooms to tuck in your suitcase. Though not fresh, pungent dried porcini are still an excellent addition to pasta sauces, soups, and gravies. Choose dried mushrooms that have intact slices, a decisively loamy scent, and not too much mushroom dust or crumbs at the bottom of the bag, which could mean that the mushrooms are past their prime. Porcini are also sold preserved in olive oil, which are delicious though more risky to pack home. Be sure to wrap the glass jar in multiple layers of padding and bag it tightly!
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Whether you’ve opted for dried or fresh, King Bolete will add a wonderful hearty flavor to any dish. If you are using dried porcini, cover them in boiling water and leave them to soften for 15 – 20 minutes. Once soft, drain the mushrooms and use them as you would fresh mushrooms in any recipe. Remember to reserve the flavorful liquid left over after draining the mushrooms and use it if your recipe calls for water or broth.
To prepare fresh porcini, clean off any earth with a damp cloth after checking for worms, but do not wash them until you are ready to use them, as water may make them soften too quickly. Once you have thoroughly cleaned and inspected your mushrooms, you can prepare them in a number of ways, including as an addition to sauces or soups, sliced and grilled or fried, sautéed and served over chicken or steak, grilled whole, or as a pizza topping.
No matter how you slice them, porcini are one of the most memorable delights on Italy’s fall table, so be sure to sample these kings of mushrooms on your next autumn trip!