Funghi porcini, commonly referred to simply as “porcini” (“piglets”, probably based on their appearance; singular “porcino”) are large, edible mushrooms of the species Boletus edulis. English speakers often refer to them as “porcini mushrooms“.
Common names for Boletus edulis vary by region. The word “porcino” is Tuscan and hence standard Italian, and reflects the latin word suilli, meaning the same as porcini, used by the ancient Romans for Boletus edulis. Other common names are bastardo, brisa, fungo di macchia, moccicone (“snotty”), ceppatello, giallo leonato, ghezzo, moreccio and settembrino. Until molecular biological analysis showed otherwise, many mycologists considered some of the many morphological variants to be separate species, but this is not the case. The species is simply highly polymorphic, even within an area as small as Chianti. Porcini are found throughout the northern hemisphere and have been introduced into a number of countries in the southern hemisphere. In France they are famous under the name “cèpe de Bordeaux”.
Porcini typically have a comparatively thick stipe (stem) that bulges out in the middle and has a whitish reticulation on a brownish background, a large convex cap that is leather brown and slightly sticky with small pores on the underside of the cap rather than gills. The appearance of porcini varies by region and by age.
Porcini grow in association of specific trees and are considered ectomycorrhizal symbiotes associated with the roots of the trees they grow under. The best porcini seem to grown in forests that are predominantly horse chestnut (castagna), but they also grow in forests of oak, beech and fir, with related edible species found under pine trees. In Chianti, the forest is often a mixture of chestnut and oak and hence ideal for porcini.
Umbrella pine forests are also common in Chianti and species related to Boletus edulis, notably Boletus pinophilus (previously Boletus pinicola) grow among the pine needles. Their common names include brisa mora, pinofilo, porcino dei pini, porcino rosso, ceppatello dal freddo (in Tuscany). Most people regard their flavour as inferior to that of the true porcino but this is not always true. It depends also on the terrain. In any case, they are very tasty when cooked.
If you’re a visitor to Chianti, ask local people for the best places to go mushroom hunting. A collection of cars parked at the periphery of an otherwise uninteresting forest on a Saturday morning is a good indicator of porcini territory.
Porcini are usually found in spring and again in late autumn, especially after rainfall.
Twist the mushroom off at its base rather than uprooting it. This leaves the underground mycelium undisturbed and new fruiting bodies (mushrooms) will spring up within days if the weather conditions are right. Cutting the stipe with a knife may risk the part left behind going rotten and the mycelium being destroyed. Carry your porcini away in a basket – in some parts of Italy this is mandated by law. The loose weave of the basket allows the spores to “reseed” by falling through onto the ground. In addition, it’s a bad idea to let mushrooms be in contact with plastic for any length of time because they rapidly go rotten if moisture doesn’t disperse and there seems to be a toxic reaction between plastic and mushrooms. Even dried mushrooms are sold in cellophane or brown paper bags rather than plastic bags for this reason. In most of Italy there is a strict daily weight limit and in addition it might be necessary to buy a daily porcini harvesting permit from the local town hall. Smaller porcini in general have a better flavour and texture than the very large ones.
There are almost no poisonous mushrooms that resemble porcini, making them an ideal prize for amateur mushroom hunters. Nevertheless, discard any porcino-like mushroom that turns blue where bruised, a characteristic of the devil’s bolete (Boletus satanas), which has a similar shape, but has a red stem and stains blue on bruising. Porcini can be confused with the very bitter and unpalatable Tylopilus felleus. If in doubt, taste a small piece. The bitter taste of Tylopilus is instantly recognisable.
Many people, including the present author, consider fresh porcini to be much preferable to rehydrated dried porcini. This is because the flavour and aroma are very concentrated in dried porcini which, if not rehydrated properly therefore can take on a slightly burnt flavour, and of course the texture of a fresh porcino is not fully recovered after rehydration. In any case, rehydrate dried porcini in hot but not boiling water, and make use of the water for soups etc. Fresh porcini should be used for sautéed, fried and baked porcini dishes and are preferable for use in ragouts and sauces other than very concentrated sauces where ground dried porcini can be used successfully.
An additional reason to eat fresh porcini is that you will have a good idea of where they come from. Porcini accumulate toxic heavy metals, including radioactive elements, in significant amounts. Dried exports from countries such as China have little or no quality control and could easily have been harvested near mine tailings and other contaminated sites or not be Boletus at all. Most of the dried porcini commercially available in Italy or exported from Italy no longer originate from Italy, even when labelled “Italian Porcini”, but originate in eastern Europe and China. Those from China often have Tylopilus mixed in, imparting an unpleasant bitter taste to the whole packet.
To bypass the problem of contaminated dried porcini, it is easy to dry porcini that you have collected yourself. Cut the porcini into slices about 5 mm thick and leave them in hot sunshine. You can also string them up on a thread and hang them in an area of low humidity, outside or inside. Oven drying is also possible. If there’s any dampness around, they will go mouldy rapidly. Therefore, don’t wash the fresh porcini prior to drying – brush or cut away any dirt and the rest can be shaken off after drying.
The fleshy texture of porcini and their nutty flavour are unequaled among mushrooms, allowing porcini to be the main ingredient in a huge variety of dishes. Porcini are low in fat and digestible carbohydrates, and high in protein, vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. Porcini can be eaten and enjoyed raw, lightly grilled over charcoal (delicious – don’t let them burn. and just add a bit of salt and maybe a drop of olive oil), sautéed in butter or olive oil, minced for pasta sauces (e.g. carrettiere, “carter’s sauce”) and pasta fillings, in soups and in many other dishes, too many to describe here. Sliced porcini sautéed in olive oil go extremely well with any kind of fried meat, especially if the two are cooked together. Porcini add flavour to almost any kind of sauce or ragout used on pasta, and they make an excellent flavouring for risotto. Throughout Italy, prepared stuffed pasta containing porcini are readily available.
Garlic and also parsley are very often successfully added to porcini during cooking. Also look for nipitella, a kind of wild mint properly known in English as Lesser Calamint, commonly found in the fields and also from time to time available in vegetable markets and supermarkets. It is sometimes called nepitella or mentuccia and also erba dei gatti since it contains nepatalactone and has the same effect on cats as other species of catnip. Nipitella goes extremely well in combination with porcini.