The Hunt for Porcini
I stumbled outside, bleary-eyed and half-asleep where Tiziano was waiting in his car. It was precisely 5:15am and my first question to my neighbor was, “Why do we have to leave so early to look for mushrooms?”
“To beat everyone else looking for mushrooms,” he said. Satisfied with that logic, I wedged my head between the window and seat and fell asleep.
I awoke as we drove into the driveway of his boyhood friend Primo who was joining us in the hunt. I introduced myself, they saluted each other in dialect and we began the hour and a half drive to their secret, undisclosed mushroom bonanza located somewhere in the mountains between Emilia Romagna and Tuscany.
The first stop was as the bar of a nearby gas station for a little breakfast. Not even six in the morning, it was packed with montanari, or men of the mountain, preparing for a day of hunting for cinghiali, deer, or like us, porcini mushrooms. Huddled around the bar with cappuccinos in one hand and pastries in the other, one of the older camouflage-clad hunters recounted his true and less-than-true stories in a thick Reggiano dialect about the ones that got away, turning around regularly with a grin and a wink to make sure we were hanging on to every word.
Porcini mushrooms are the prized culinary ingredient in many Italian dishes. The name literally means “piglet” due to the chubby shape of the mushrooms when they are young and can be found in the wild high up in the mountains throughout Autumn. I was told that only people from this area in Italy are interested in hunting for porcini, even going so far as to tell me of a story of how during a bus trip up to Scotland, the old ladies found fields of untouched porcini because the Scots had no idea they were edible. They spent days picking and drying their find in front of the heaters in their hotel rooms and over the engine of their bus in an effort to preserve the delicate mushrooms for the ride back to Italy. They came back feeling as though they had found D.B. Cooper’s illusive sack of money.
Driving down the last stretch of an unmarked dirt road through the forest where we’d begin our hike, the sun had yet to rise and a ferocious cold wind blew the trees back and forth. The temperature was barely above freezing and I breathed a sigh of relief about having had put on two sweaters and a heavy jacket before leaving this morning. We waited in the car for almost a half hour for the sun to rise and with luck, for the wind to calm down. At least that was a plan, until we spotted three other guys hiking up our mountain at which point we jumped out of the car, strapped on our mushroom baskets and began hiking through the dimly lit forest towards the top of the mountain.
A full hour of hiking and we hadn’t found a single porcino. Tiziano grew discouraged saying more than once, “It’s just not the right time of year.” Primo and Tiziano decided to split up, with Primo going up the mountain and Tiziano and I going down it. We were no longer following any trails and were hands and feet planted to the 45º slope of the mountain that disappeared into a chasm below us. It wasn’t long before Tiziano waved me over to where he was standing, whispering my name as to not alert anyone who might be hidden in the trees, to show me the big porcino he found hidden beneath the grass in a small alcove beneath some stones. He reached over and found another, and another and I scurried over to another patch and pulled the large, sourdough scented mushrooms from the ground. We had found the motherload. We were piling up the porcini in piles, cleaning them off, then carefully placing them in our baskets. We continued up and down the mountain, zig zagging and checking areas the other had already checked to avoid missing even one.
Working up the mountain, sometimes even climbing vertically up rock walls, Tiziano’s basket was nearly completely full and it wasn’t even 10 AM. We followed narrow goat trails deeper into the wilderness but eventually our luck ran out and the porcini became harder to find. Hiking up the next mountain I noticed signs that someone had already passed by that morning since some of the poisonous mushrooms had been pulled out by their roots. We were both tiring and it was getting close to lunch time so Tiziano called Primo on his cell phone to tell him that we were on, “The mountain over by the chasm,” which turned out to be enough information for him to walk right up to us while we were hiking back to the car. The arduous four hour hike up was followed by a leisurely half hour hike down the marked trail that led us right to the car.
We eventually arrived back home where Tiziano, the proud son, handed his basket of mushrooms to his mother, Adele. She pulled out a rusty antique hand-held scale older than herself with a large weight on one end of the fulcrum and a hook on the other. Single-handedly she picked up the basket with the scale and with a big smile said, “Ten kilograms!” I told her she can have all of mine as well since she’d know how best to use them, and she graciously replied, “Then I’ll invite you down when I use them in a dinner.” With only three hours of sleep and a lower body crying out in pain, the only response I could muster up was a deep primordial grunt of joy.