Porcini have a smell of the woods about them that I like, as if you have just scuttled through piles of damp leaves after an autumn downpour. There’s a rising earthiness mingling with a suspicion of decay, and a slight dread that the smell might get more fecal than fungal and it keeps you on edge.
But that rich savouriness that wafts up when you wipe a knife loaded with vegemite over hot toast, the suggestion of garlic teasing your nostrils, and those bubbling vessels of cognac and scalded cream you’d find in French haute cuisine establishments of the past, and an essence of yeast, of spores, of funghi in the air…these are all part of the captivating magic of porcini, an indefinable single aroma and taste.
Fresh porcini are meaty in texture and are sometimes referred to as ‘poor man’s steak’, though you may have to be rather rich to eat a meal of them. They can grow quite large – caps the size of a saucer are common.
Cook them as you do portobellos – in sauces, casseroles and soups, in risotto or on crostini, for instance. One of the best ways is the simplest, pan-fried in butter, seasoned with salt and pepper and eaten as is. If you’ve got plenty, slice them thickly, drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil and cook them quickly over a grill. Finish off with salt, pepper, chopped garlic and parsley and a squeeze of lemon.
Porcini or cèpe (Boletus edulis) is an edible fungus, available fresh in some countries during autumn, or dried at other times of the year. Drying concentrates the woodsy aroma and savoury taste. Dried porcini will keep for at least a year, but storing them in the freezer in an airtight bag will prolong their life. Make sure you are buying quality porcini, not a bag of dusty flakes. Choose brands that have a cellophane window so you can see the colour and quality, although the biggest, whitest and best will be put on view. Don’t buy packs of dark and shrivelled porcini which are usually very old, hard to reconstitute evenly and strong tasting.
To reconstitute, put porcini in a small bowl and pour over the amount of hot water specified in the recipe. Soak for 30 minutes. Lift porcini out of soaking water and transfer to a sieve. Rinse under running water, checking for any woody bits which should be trimmed off or discarded. Chop as specified. Strain soaking water twice through a small strainer lined with a coffee filter, or paper towels or clean muslin, and set liquid aside. Use liquid as specified, or if not called for in the recipe, freeze it and use in soups or stews.
Like other flavour-packed ingredients, porcini are expensive but a small amount is all you need to perfume a dish. And here’s a trick: mixing them with less expensive cultivated mushrooms will lend their essence to a dish for half the price. Use them in pasta sauces, with risotto and polenta, in chicken and rabbit casseroles, with game and in soups.
Here is a piece I wrote years ago for Cuisine magazine about my first porcini experience in Italy in 1976.
My first experience of a whole porcini cap, a gargantuan specimen I’ve not seen the likes of since, was in a Tuscan restaurant. The mushroom was bigger than the side plate it was served on. Daunting, yes, and at first glance, a bit gross. I was the smarty-bum foreigner who had asked for vegetable dishes instead of going with the set menu of plain grilled meats, the specialty of the region. No eyebrows were raised as I enquired about alternatives but I suspect the kitchen staff laughed long and hard, ‘The foreigner eat that! No way!’
The mushroom had been grilled and arrived smelling a bit whiffy in that nose-tingling smelly-sandshoe sort of way mushrooms can. The texture was meaty, like abalone, and a tad oily, the taste deeply mushroomy and garlicky but faintly sweet and nutty at the same time. It was a light-bulb moment. I gobbled the whole thing quickly in case someone asked me to share, then with a finger, I surreptitiously licked every droplet of juice off that plate and hoovered up every minute leftover crumb. I couldn’t help myself because, you see, I had fallen helplessly and hopelessly in love. Helpless, because I had been unable to contain or conceal my greed, I had become a little pig, the very animal porcini is named after, and hopeless because I was doomed. New Zealand, to where I was headed, was a porcini-free zone, or so I believed, back then in 1976. And I certainly hadn’t heard of dried porcini.
*I have since discovered we do indeed have porcini growing wild in New Zealand, but do you think I am going to tell you where? Nope.