Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hunting The Wild Porcino

Hunting the wild porcino ...

means an early start ...

Up at 4:30 for a start in the car at 5:30 to get into the woods at 6:30 and hunt until the need for espresso and some warmth overcomes the excitement of the hunt and the increasing frustration of the hunters ... porcini are wild, nervous mushrooms, hiding themselves under bits of plant, old sticks, a thin layer of dirt ... all this has evolved within the porcini population to avoid the eager sticks poked at ‘em by caffeine-deprived sleuths ...

We started at first light, and took one of the most wild drives I have ever been on up into the Dolomites ... to ‘Alto Piano’ (high level) where there are a series of seven villages within the alpine area. The rule, strictly enforced, is that you stop at a designated little shop and get your porcini-hunting license stamped for that day ... every hunter must have one of these ... at €7 apiece ... to avoid a fine of €70. Quite the incentive!

The highway (?) up to Alto Piano has 15 signed full 180-degree switchbacks; this road is just designed for nimble motorcycles, small, powerful cars and bicycles. (Or vice-versa) The road is a lane-and-a-bit wide in most places ... and the side-drop would be lethal. I am constantly impressed with Italian drivers ... fast, yes, and skilful ... North American drivers have a long way to go.

Porcini hunters do not just stop the car anywhere and wander off into the woods, flicking bits of underbrush aside with a stick to look for tell-tale signs of porcini (which are, truly, darn hard to find). No! The porcini hunters actually drive up the mountain to a place they think they will be private, stop the car, get out and wander off into the woods, flicking bits of underbrush aside with a stick to look for tell-tale signs of porcini.

It is slow, somewhat random and it is hard, to coin a phrase, to see the porcini for the trees. Porcini usually nestle under a thin layer of sticks, or a leaf, or other cover. There are little white mushrooms that are a sort of tell-tale (Sylvia calls them ‘spies’ for porcini) which, if you can find, indicate that this is a good area for likely porcini development ... but no guarantee that there will be what you want. Porcini hunters are very polite to the other porcini hunters they meet in the woods ... we met or saw almost a dozen in our special, unknown area. Success seems to truly vary widely ... a couple who parked right next to Chef’s car showed us their haul ... a few nondescript ‘shrooms, and one lonely porcino. They were quite impressed with Chef’s loot for a morning’s work!
To get a porcino out of the ground undamaged, one has to be careful. After spying the thing, shove the end of a stick under the porcino about 10 cm, then gently lever it out of the ground. Slow and careful are the watchwords of success.

Chef was successful ... after three and a half hours, he’d found 7 – seven! – porcini. Sylvia had found 2, and ... my porcini score was ... the nice walk in the woods overcame my slight disappointment at not being actually able to heave a porcino into the pot. But I understand that frequently there are none to be found. So I am told, with a sympathetic smile.

That evening we sold most of the porcini, thinly-sliced and layered into the unfolded inside of a couple of branzino (type of fish, presented with head and tail on), dressed with a simple sauce to enhance. The rest of them went to the four of us (Chef, Sylvia, Chef’s Mum (our dishwasher), and your humble scribe).


My question to me for today is ... how do I actually work for the food I enjoy, or offer others? Has my food become entirely commodified?