The portly porcini is indisputably the King of Italian mushrooms. The essence of autumn in Italy is distilled in its earthy character. Every fall the woodsy scent of the forest calls Italian mushrooms lovers to search for this flavorful fungus with the firm, fleshy texture that goes so well with everything from pasta to robust stews and sauces or brushed with olive oil and grilled over a wood fire.
I first tasted the Italian porcini with our Italian cousins, Lidia and Roberto on a road trip through Tuscany. We abruptly pulled off the road, stopping the car at a clearing in the forest where the Italian version of Tasha Tudor was selling porcini from a stand. She carefully sorted the mushrooms while others in her group magically appeared now and then from the surrounding woods with basketfuls of porcini to restock the crates that lined the wooden tables. Like an autumn apparition, their appearance matching the trees and leaves of the forest and the reddish-brown color of the porcini. Like truffle-hunters, Italian fungaioli are experts in seeking out this woodland treasure.
Porcini mushrooms grow best under a layer of pine needles or oak leaves and can weigh up to 2 pounds each. Prized for its earthy, nutty flavor and thick, meaty texture the porcino adds a depth of flavor and richness to dishes from risotto to soups. Our family likes them fried and served with herbs and polenta. Their high protein content make porcini mushrooms an excellent substitute for meat, and the spongy underside of their large caps melts down during slow cooking into a rich earthy sauce.
The most prized porcini is the Boletus edulis, or the King bolete, that grows from August through the fall. Porcini aren’t easily cultivated making them highly sought after. Their growth is founded on underground mycelia threads (thin filaments that anchor and ingest organic matter) developing in symbiosis with the roots of surrounding plants. This complex and delicate relationship favors the age-old ecosystem of the pine, chestnut, hemlock, and spruce forests of central and northern Italy. Almost all the porcini mushrooms found in markets and restaurants in Italy are foraged by hand. Although porcini are particularly common in Italy, there are around 300 species of boletes and you can find a variety of species naturally growing in habitats throughout Europe, Asia, North America and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere. In the US you can find them growing in the Pacific Northwest in the costal and Cascade Mountain forests.