Maybe it’s because of the effects of the abnormal weather, or maybe it’s simply because deliveries have been delayed, but porcinis haven’t appeared yet in my usual supermarket.
Porcinis are an absolutely delicious variety of mushroom. Likening them to Italy’s matsutake (pine mushrooms) might be a simple way of understanding and imagining them, in various senses. The mushrooms known as the top three mushroom varieties in the world are porcini, matsutake, and truffles. But there seem to be quite a few people who don’t like truffles because they have quite a strong and particular fungus flavor.
On the other hand, porcinis offer an exquisite balance of aroma, flavor, and texture. I haven’t yet come across anyone who has said “I actually don’t like porcinis all that much...” When they’re in season, restaurants present dishes for you to indulge your porcini cravings: salad with sliced porcini, porcini risotto, griddle-fried porcini, and so on and on.
I think you can translate “porcini” from the Italian as “little piglet”, and it seems the name comes from its thick, fleshy, and rotund sort of appearance, just like a piglet. Plus, what is surprising about these popular mushrooms is that no one has successfully cultivated them. The porcinis that you see in the markets are all picked in the wild.
The porcinis that haven’t been consumed while still fresh are sliced and sold as dried porcini. Dried porcini have different hues compared to when they are fresh, with a green tinge on their tops and a contrasting whiteness on the stalks, which gives them an attractive appearance. Beautifully clean slices of carefully selected dried porcinis, nicely arranged in round packages, also come in handy as a gift.
In contrast, truffles are a delicacy with a high price that makes fans groan. Even after drying, this fungus gives off its strong aroma, an aroma that could more accurately be described as an intense smell than a characteristic fragrance. Truffle flavors are often enjoyed in Italy sliced in simple risotto and pasta dishes, but goodness me, the fungus itself looks plain awful! Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t given a nice and friendly name like “porcini,” the “little piglet.” By the way, the experts at finding truffles are actually pigs. Apparently, there was a time when they used pigs to find truffles. Pigs have an excellent sense of smell and they love truffles, which means they find them quickly, but there is a problem: when pigs sniff out truffles, they dig them up without any care, then quickly eat them up, with an equal lack of care. On the other hand, they tend to get tired of truffle hunting and give it up as soon as they have satisfied themselves by munching on a few of them. That is why pigs have now been passed up and dogs are used for truffle hunting.
Many northern Italians go out mushroom and truffle hunting. For many years, I too have thought I’d like to go out mushroom hunting and pick a basket full, but I don’t even know where to find them, let alone how to tell the edible from the poisonous ones, so, while I have wanted to go every year, so far, I have failed to actually go mushroom hunting even once.
The other day I was walking in the mountains when to my great joy I spotted some wonderfully colorful mushrooms, like the ones you see in fairy tales. The Italian person with me said “No, they’re poisonous!” Disappointed, all I could bring home was some photos. Next year will definitely be the year I go and find some mushrooms that I can eat!