his time of the year, they’ve marched to the front of fruttivendoli across Italy, standing in slightly soiled little rows in paper-lined wooden crates. There are no gnomes in sight, nor fairies fluttering nearby, though there may well be a wizened, pot-bellied old Italian beckoning you and proffering a (paper) bagful of the “finest, freshest, most Italian porcini in town.”
Unfortunately, statistics contradict him. A survey conducted by Istat, the Italian statistics institute, showed that during the three-year period between 2002 and 2005 Italy imported more than twice the mushrooms it exported. Professor Gabriella Di Massimo, a mycologist at the University of Perugia who edited the report, points out that “most of the mushrooms sold through wholesale distribution in Italy are imported from South Africa, Chile and China. Italy is the single largest mushroom consumer in Europe, and we eat far more than we can produce.”
Where, then, do all those homegrown marvels gathered by assiduous weekend-collectors wind up?
“Many are sold to restaurants,” notes Di Massimo, “or sold directly out of the backs of trucks along the roadside.” This means that if you want to put a plate of the finest Italian fungus on the table, you’ll do best to avoid the large distribution chains that feed supermarkets and many fruit sellers, relying instead on the smaller and (probably) more expensive local merchants. Either way, by law in Italy mushrooms placed on sale must be kept in open, well-aerated containers, accompanied by a certificate that displays their scientific name, with the sole exception of porcini mushrooms, allowed to stand by “porcini” alone.
Whatever the provenance, mushrooms are a remarkable plant, different from most everything else in the vegetable kingdom. They entirely lack chlorophyll, drawing their nutrition from the organic soup they’re rooted in. The part we eat is really the reproductive organ — the sex — of a much larger organism called mycelia, the tiny thread-like strands of fungus that decompose wood and recycle dead plant and animal material. These tiny white fibers grow throughout the soil, and a single handful of forest floor can contain miles of it.
Mushrooms seem to grow “overnight” because most of their growth takes place out of sight, and the cap and stem we cull above ground is a flower structure nature has designed to disseminate a myriad of spores that land, root and create more mushrooms.
This is why mushroom collectors are required use open containers (generally wicker baskets) to gather their booty; the openings allow spores to filter down to the ground and propagate. Plastic bags not only prevent this, they risk altering the taste and toxicity of this delicate food before it reaches our mouths.
Good, because 2006 has been an excellent year for Italian mushrooms, and the first fleshy specimens were already available in restaurants at the end of August. The most common — porcini (Boletus edulis, B. aereus, B. reticulates, B. pinicola) and ovoli (Amanita cesarea) — make for excellent eating both cooked and straight out of the basket. Porcini mushrooms have brownish-yellow caps and pale spongy stems that usually become bulgy towards their base. Ovoli, which are a far less hardy specimen and consequently cost more than porcini, have a yellow-orange cap and a delicate golden-yellow stem.
Fresh mushrooms usually require careful cleaning. Use a knife to gently scrape away any dirt still clinging to the stem or cap, an operation that may take as much as a minute to complete depending on how finicky you are.
Avoid washing any part of the mushroom, using a damp cloth to wipe the caps and stems clean if absolutely necessary. The mushroom’s dense, spongy structure quickly absorbs water, and you’ll soon have a gummy mess on your hands if you’re not careful.
Remember that what we eat is essentially an earth-born flower, and is particularly easy to overcook and overpower with other flavors. Porcini mushroom pasta dishes are usually nothing more than an abundance of fresh mushroom, butter or olive oil, parsley and just a touch of garlic over pasta. If your pasta comes with a tomato-based porcini sauce, check with the waiter to make sure the mushrooms are fresh, not frozen.
Fresh porcini are often fried, grilled or pan-baked, but like ovoli, they are at their best when served uncooked. Slice the caps and stems into thin slivers and dress them as you would a fresh salad: olive oil, salt and a little fresh lemon juice. Ovoli can also be accompanied by a few flakes of parmigiano. Gourmands go so far as to add a few white truffle shavings, claiming that it is the best possible accent for the ovoli’s delicate fragrance, although this will require some considerable extra wallet shavings as well.