Monday, 16 July 2012

If you go down to the woods today... make sure they are in Italy

Where would Italian cooking be without a handful of mushrooms? As fungi does in nature, so in this cuisine, they just appear and you can expect to eat mushrooms which are fresh, dried, canned, preserved or infused in some way or another. The Italians are nothing if not ingenious in making use of everything produced in that fertile country.

All of Italy has a passion for both Puccini and Porcini. The latter is an endearing diminutive, meaning little pig or piglet. It’s not surprising this squat little fellow has earned such a moniker as Porcini has a texture akin to meat and combines pungent aroma with a slightly dank earthiness with memories of the pine forest or chestnut woods where these meaty beauties were born. Their nuttiness marries so efficaciously with Italian ingredients it actually provides tasty dishes fitting for the most aristocratic banquet or the simplest of breakfasts.

It’s not a surprise that Porcini should be totally entwined in Italian culinary tradition, as in the wild state, it develops a symbiosis with its host and often emerges at the base of trees. Sometimes they are difficult to spot exactly as the genus Boletus is prolific and varies tremendously in terms of shape, size and colour but the prize must be those pale youngsters bedding down beneath chestnut trees. Imagine foraging early in the morning and discovering a patch of plump fleshy caps which exude the scent of nature, time passing, fecundity and decay; it is a heady perfume that reminds us of our birth and where we are all eventually headed. Porcini? Just a mushroom? You have to be kidding!

An Italian staple is Boletus Brisa and these can be found in mountainous regions and an area famed for production is close to Parma. If you have ever inspected the classic preserved anti pasti funghi in oil you will notice the Porcini used there is often Porcino Nero and sometimes Porcini mushroom also appear to reflect their background being coppery orange just like the beech woods from which they derive. Do note, pickers in Italy do so under license and are restricted to just two kgs per week. Whether they are picking Porcino d’estate or Porcino del Freddo they must be gathered in traditional baskets. Why? To allow spores the opportunity to waft in the air and ensure a succession of mushrooms in future seasons. It’s not just a romantic gesture to swing your brimming basket on the way home from a successful foraging trip you are enacting a valuable service too.

So, once gathered, what might you do with your fresh porcini mushrooms? Our Flavours cookery mentors are full of ideas yet sometimes the simplest one which accentuate those Porcini qualities means fresh produce cannot be topped or messed around with too much. Treat your fresh Porcini with love and respect and just expose them to a brief grill and serve with the highest quality olive oil, some garlic if you like and chopped parsley and for me, a squeeze of lemon. Who needs meat when a mushroom tastes like this? You could fry or stew them, add tomato or chop them to top a slice of bruschetta. I defy you not to nibble all the time you prepare these little delicacies as bread and mushrooms were made for one another.

If you plump for preserved Porcini they must be steeped in good quality olive oil and should be kept cool, maybe in a dark cupboard or pantry so they don’t fade. If you are in Tuscany, Umbria or Puglia on a Flavours cooking course, expect local varieties to differ as each growing tradition is affected by climate, by woodland and of course, by geology.

After being excited by the possibilities Porcini can bring to your cooking, unless you live near a large urban area most people will need to settle for dried versions. These are in no way inferior and the drying process lends these mushrooms a different but very special quality all of their own. The flavour is more intense and this concentrated packet of intensity will transform a risotto or soup. Ensure their presence is announced as you open a packet – if they have lost their aroma, then I am afraid the taste will have evaporated too. If their appearance is crumbly or dusty, leave well alone.

If you have fallen in love with Italian food and really want to explore its traditions and techniques then join a cookery course and infuse your life with the passion and romance of Italy, who knows what you might discover about life, love and death when handling the beloved Porcini!

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