Mushroom hunting was once an important source of sustenance in many regions of Italy, from the Veneto to Tuscany to Umbria to Liguria. Many Italians today still forage wild mushrooms, with local communities in each region working to keep this tradition alive, sharing recipes for preserving the mushrooms and establishing rules for their picking. Our September cycling and walking tours in Italy allow us ample opportunity to feast upon and cook with the decadent porcini mushrooms.
My first attempt at purchasing them at a market here in Italy left me very disappointed. Here in Italy, at a market, you point, and the vendor selects the product for you. A good system hygienically, but unscrupulous vendors can stick you with lousy product if you are not watchful. That happened with my first purchase of porcini – when I cut into the stems, they were spongy and yellow and riddled with holes. Porcini attract worms, and these teeny holes are from the worms burrowing in. This is fine if the mushrooms are dried – the worms crawl out – but not ideal for eating fresh. I threw them out.
A few days later, porcini were at my local vegetable market, where I shop regularly and they are always very careful to select good products for everyone. They selected 4 porcini for me, and carefully checked each one for quality and worm holes by cutting a small slit in the bottom of each stem. They were perfect, pale and firm and beautiful.
Fresh porcini can be stored in a paper bag in your refrigerator for a few days prior to using. The bottom of the stems will be quite dirty, using a small knife cut off the dirty exterior. Do not wash under running water, this will make them mushy, but you can try and clean them as much as possible using a damp paper towel.
The following recipe is a classic, on the menu at many a trattoria in Tuscany in September. A few ingredients, perfect porcini mushrooms, cheese, and a wonderful local olive oil is all you need – a prime example of Italian cuisine, a few pristine ingredients, simply prepared.
Insalata di Porcini Crudo – Raw Porcini Mushroom Salad
4 fresh porcini mushrooms, cleaned and stems inspected for worms
4 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, thinly sliced with a vegetable peeler
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Thinly slice the porcini mushrooms, keeping caps and stems attached. Place in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with some olive oil. Carefully toss to combine, keeping mushroom slices intact.
Divide mushrooms between 4 plates. Top with the slices of cheese. Drizzle with more olive oil and serve.
I would suggest an olive oil on the mild, fruitier side, like the Leccino varietal from Pruneti. It still has a bit of pepper in the finish, but won’t overwhelm the flavors of the Porcini.
Enjoy with a glass of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, one of the few DOCG white wines from Tuscany.