On the Hunt: Mushroom Madness
Foraging for mushrooms is an essential part of autumn in Tuscany. This time of year it’s all about mushrooms, hunting them, eating them and talking about them. The exhilaration of the hunt – the thrill of discovering and picking wild mushrooms in an Italian forest is something I will never forget. This week’s menu highlights homemade pasta with assorted mushrooms and other Tuscan seasonal ingredients.
Featured Wine: Mediterra, Poggio al Tesoro, Allegrini 2017
(Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot blend) . Wine Spectator: 91 points
Chef Travel Notes
The exhilaration of the hunt – the thrill of discovering and picking wild mushrooms in an Italian forest is something I will never forget. It is an essential part of autumn in Tuscany. This time of year, it’s all about mushrooms – hunting them, eating them and talking about them. On the weekend, country roads are filled with the cars of city folk who undoubtedly have a hunting-gathering gene transmitted by centuries of foraging Tuscan ancestors.
I remember we had to wait for the ideal time for picking in relationship to sun, rain and even the moon’s phases that determine growth. These woodland mushrooms grow in the Fall when the weather is warm and damp and are often found in the vicinity of chestnut, oak, and pine trees. The hunting of mushrooms is generally a secret and solitary affair. Expert foragers will never reveal their favorite spots. Of course, much like other things in Italy, it is surrounded by superstitions. The morning of my first foray into the woods, I was advised to wear by underwear inside out if I wanted to find any mushrooms. And, unfortunately, almost every year there are stories of entire families being wiped out after ingesting poisonous varieties because they believed that if you stir the mushrooms with a silver spoon and it doesn’t turn black they are ok to eat.
Porcini (piglets) are the Rolls Royce of mushrooms. They are plump with smooth pale brown heads and thick bulbus stems. Preparation is simple – wipe with a damp rag (never submerge mushrooms) and rub with olive oil, salt and pepper. It is best to grill the cap whole, rendering the under-flesh like custard, while the stem is delicious sliced and deep fried.
Expansive forests in southern Tuscany near Montalcino are ideal for mushroom hunting. They have been an important supplement to the income of its rural people for hundreds of years. Our featured wine this week, Allegrini, Poggio al Tesoro, Mediterra 2017, comes from Bolgheri, prime wine making territory just west of Montalcino.
Dinner begins with a salad featuring other Tuscan seasonal ingredients, Insalata di Cavolo Nero. Black Tuscan kale, also known as Lacinato, is usually eaten after the first frost and is a staple on the region’s fall and winter menus. Since it is not easy to find here, we have mixed it with local baby kale, and tossed it with cannellini beans, golden raisins and sheep’s milk pecorino.
Tacconi ai Funghi, are irregularly cut pasta squares designed to hold rich hearty sauces. Since the regal fresh porcini is impossible to find state side, we have used its dried version to add a deep earthiness to our sauce. Cremini, shiitake, portobello and oyster mushrooms are sautéed together with garlic, olive oil, marjoram and mint.
Petti di Pollo al Burro, is an iconic Florentine dish made famous by 150-year old Trattoria Sostanza. It is basically a chicken breast sautéed in European butter, but that butter bath transforms a normally simple piece of chicken into something extraordinary and extravagant.
Torta di Mele is a rustic Tuscan apple cake made with Golden Delicious apples. I learned it from Maria in our Trattoria’s kitchen. Apparently, it was inspired by a cookbook with authentic Disney illustrations, Manuale di Nonna Papera, Grandma Duck’s Cookbook. "Nonna Papera" is Donald Duck’s grandmother and beloved to Italians. Her desserts are famous and whenever I would bake an American pie for my friends in Italy, they ultimate compliment would be: “Pareva la torta di Nonna Papera,” “It looks like a Grandma Duck pie.”
Sometimes all it takes is a brisk September morning or the sound of crackling leaves under my feet, to bring back memories of discovering and picking my first wild mushroom. Or, remembering those walks along Florentine streets past open markets and restaurant windows with baskets lined with laurel leaves and filled with the biggest mushrooms I have ever seen. During these increasingly difficult times of social isolation, a walk in the woods can rejuvenate, help clear our cluttered minds, and empower us to take a broader look at our lives. Although we won’t find any porcini mushrooms, we just may rediscover the thrill and exhilaration of connecting with nature.