I have yet to meet a culture that loves mushrooms as much as the Italians. From the ordinary crimini to the coveted white truffle renowned for its intoxicating aroma and hefty price tag, the Italians are obsessed with all things fungi. The modest porcini, however, reigns king throughout much of the country. While porcini (Boletus edulis) grow all over Europe and even North America, the Italians seem to have a special affinity for this humble mushroom. At their peak from late summer to early fall, after rains have fallen but the heat of the day still burns bright, families head into the forest with baskets and small knives to collect their bounties. Porcini season is very short and most of the harvest is dried for use throughout the rest of the year. For a few precious weeks each fall, however, fresh porcinis are everywhere and porcini feasts abound in villages around Rome, Emilia Romagna, the mountainous region throughout Veneto and the Alto Adige to the north.
I was in Rome the first time I encountered the succulence of a fresh porcini – simply drizzled with olive oil and salt, then grilled. Every single restaurant seemed to have them on their menu that week – from upscale eateries to casual cafes – everyone was celebrating. Being part Italian, it wasn’t until I experienced the jubilance of the villagers during porcini season that I began to fully understand the practice of honoring the harvest. The Italians have always had this farm-to-table approach to eating, celebrating during the height of the harvest, and then preserving their bounty through drying, curing, and pickling to nourish throughout the rest of the year. Dried porcinis are used in stews, beans and risottos, and provide a meaty depth of flavor like none other. I was lucky to be in Rome that fall, as I fell in love with mushrooms, and my relationship with food and was forever altered by the Italians and their age-old custom of eating with the seasons.