It is August in Tuscany, and that means the locals are out gathering Porcini! Our friends from the mountains heard that we might like to do this, and invited us to join them for an early morning “hunt.” I learned that porcini, which means “piggy,” is a reference to the stubby appearance of the mushrooms. The marvel of these fungi is the symbiotic relationships they have established with the trees and especially here with the Castagna (or Chestnut) Tree. The tree and the mushrooms actually exchange nutrients that enable each to flourish. Porcini thrive when hot dry weather is followed by a cooler rain, and this has been the case here in Italy this summer.
A few of us from the Villa set out at dawn to make the long, windy drive up to Renaio. Ten families live in this village that is set in the picturesque mountains above Barga. “Usually you can hunt for hours and maybe get one or two,” our friends warned us, but we didn’t let that deter us! After a few silent prayers to the patron saint of porcini hunting, we started roaming the mountains with great zeal and a sprightly Jack Russell Terrier at our heels. In between a brief run-in with a patch of stinging nettles and a tumble down the mountainside, we discovered we had found a basketful between us!
You never want to eat porcini before getting them checked by a master, so we rushed off to a lovely lady who has lived in the mountains all her life, and can separate the “buono” from the “non buono.” In true Italian style, Deana invited us to stay for “pranzo” (accompanied, of course, by a robust bottle of vino da casa). She smiled as I asked her questions in my faltering Italian and watched her prepare the porcini for lunch. I felt truly humbled. Friends are made easily here, conversation is boisterous and engaging, and food is not only for the body, but to nourish the soul.
CHANGE SERVING SIZE
- 1 Porcini (or Portabello) – stem removed, and both stem and cap sliced thinly
- ½ to 1 cup cornmeal Finely Ground (or Farina di mais, a grana fine)
- 1 Clove garlic
- 1 cup olive oil
- Pour the olive oil into a shallow fry pan, about ½” in depth and slowly heat.
- Once the oil “crackles” when a splash of water hits it, it is ready – at this point, lower the heat to medium and add the full clove of garlic to season the oil.
- Pour about a ½ cup of corn meal onto a plate.
- Gently wash the mushroom and dry with paper towel.
- Remove the stem from the mushroom and thinly slice, then thinly slice the cap as well (about ¼” thick slices).
- Lay each piece in the cornmeal, coating both sides, and then into the hot oil.
- Fry until golden and then flip over and fry on the other side.
- Remove the mushroom from the oil with tongs, suspending it above the fry pan for a couple seconds to rid the mushroom of extra oil.
- Put on a plate and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Andiamo Mangiare!
These make a wonderful side to a meal, or can be used as an appetizer.