The Italian Almanac
The north-south divide has deepened in Italy - this time over mushrooms. Autumn storms blowing through the northern half of the country prodded the much-awaited porcini mushroom season into overdrive almost two weeks earlier than in the south. But nonetheless, on both ends of the peninsula, experts say this is a very good year for the 'piglet' or porcini.
Known as Boletus edulis by highbrow and studious mycologists, and simply as porcini by laymen and enthusiasts, depending on the year the valued fungi can run as high as 40 to 50 euros a kilogram. This year's late start has nudged prices up slightly, but for the lovers of what has been dubbed by food critics as possibly the greatest mushroom ever, it is a booty worth paying for.
Porcini mushrooms are defined by several characteristicts that make them culinary treasures. As with their other fungi cousins, porcini absorb aromas from the land around them and in association with specific trees. They live in a symbiotic relationship with the trees they grow under. Many mushroom foragers find that the most flavorful are picked in chestnut woods, where they aquire a light-colored cap and are best eaten fresh. As the porcini gets older, its underhat turns darker and they lose some of their aromas.
All species of porcini are characterized by a big, rotund and fleshy cap supported by a stout stalk of various shortness. Their rich, nutty, meaty flavors make them perfect in pasta or as a main course. Mushroom hunters are a prized breed in Italy and walk a fine balance with the environment to be able to put porcini on consumers' tables.
A permit is needed to ensure that gatherers avoid damaging the fragile balance of the forest, cutting the fungi from the bottom of the stem with a boxcutter rather than ripping them up. A wicker basket is a must so that the mushroom spores can continue to sprinkle throughout the forest - something essential for their reproduction.