There is no doubt about it – this is the land of mushrooms. Our local towns have obtained IGP certification (Indicazione Geografica Protetta), because the mushrooms which “are born” (the Italian way of putting it) in this territory are simply better. They have an unmistakable aroma which those growing in other places just do not have, and the aroma is basically what determines the quality of a porcino mushroom – ooops, we mean His Majesty The Porcino Mushroom! Yes, because around here, people almost bow their heads in reverance when uttering its name, so great is its importance for the local population. Why? Well, because at this time of the year, it has been a fundamental source of profit and of yearly stock since forever; a deeply set tradition belonging to past generations, which has fortunately been handed down to the younger folk after them.
And then of course, the bestowment of such a prestigious title put Borgo Val di Taro and surroundings on the map in a big way, not only filling us with a sense of pride, but more importantly, turning the Taro Valley into an interesting destination for all mushroom searchers, who flow into our woodlands like bees around honey! But very strict rules have been set up to protect our beautiful woods and mountain areas; aspiring searchers must be provided with a permit, and can only pick mushrooms which have reached a certain size. They should be cut at the base – and not hauled up entirely, in order to leave organic traces in the earth for future vegetation, and they should be cleaned on the spot, for the same reasons. But alas – many ignore the last two specifications because they don’t want to leave behind a millimetre of precious porcino, and obviously, the inevitable photo (for the show-offs!) will come out much better with a whole mushroom rather than with a cut one……..sadly, some can also be quite ignorant whilst stomping around the woods, leaving damage and litter in their wake.
Needless to say, the locals have great respect for our home, and some of the expert mushroom searchers, or “fungaioli”, as they are called here, go out every morning and return with heavily laden baskets. Wicker baskets are used rather than plastic bags or the like, because the mushrooms can be placed in such a manner as to avoid them being crushed, as would happen in a bag, and more importantly, because the spores can easily filter through and fall to the ground, facilitating the repopulation mentioned above. So how do these people know where to look? Many of them have their secret “fungine” (places where the mushrooms regularly grow), and will not reveal their positions even under torture! The places may have been taught to them by their father, and by their grandfather or great grandfather before that…..but mostly they have developed an eagle eye for recognising a likely place….near the right kind of tree, the right shade/sunlight etc.
What becomes of these mushrooms? As stated before, the porcino generates a considerable business around here, since when they are in season, local greengrocers like to have them in stock for their customers, and many restaurants in the area include fresh mushroom-based delicacies on their menus. And talking of menus….this weekend will see the second dedicated to His Majesty, in the “Fiera del Fungo Porcino di Borgotaro”; the Porcino mushroom festival offers a variety of features, amongst which showcooking demonstrated by well known national cooks, parmesan cheese and wine tasting, musical entertainment – even a concert played with instrumental vegetables! In October, it will be neighbouring town Albareto’s turn, with another wonderful festival totally focused around our little jewel. An enormous restaurant will be set up in a marquee, in which hundreds of visitors will delight their taste-buds with typical mushroom dishes prepared on the spot by local ladies, and service at the tables is performed by a crowd of enthusiastic youngsters, only too happy to be part of the party.
And now we get to the most interesting part; how do we prepare King Porcino? Well, there are many different ways, and everyone has their favorite, but probably the most appreciated method is fried in slices. When the mushroom is a little too “mature” to be suitable for other uses, it is sliced thickly, then either dipped in egg and breadcrumbs, or simply in flour (sometimes a little cornmeal is added for that extra crunch), and fried in plenty of oil. Another popular method is “trifolato”; firm, diced mushrooms cooked with a little olive oil and salt until soft, with the addition of a sprinkling of parsley. Tagliatelle ( fresh egg pasta cut into strips) or a lovely polenta (a sort of cornmeal porridge) topped with a wonderful porcino sauce are always a delight to the palate, and last but not least – dried mushrooms can be found in every family’s pantry. They are sliced thinly and set to dry naturally, or with a special dessicator, until they are ready to be stored away in glass jars or bags…..they keep for a long time, and are always on hand when the fancy takes us!
So why not come and try them for yourselves?!