Disclaimer: None of the pictured mushrooms is a porcino.
The hills of the Serchio Valley are quite beautiful and usually peaceful. Beginning in September, shortly after the first rains, however, they are invaded by a steady stream of cars, especially on the weekends. Porcini mushrooms are popping up and everyone wants fresh mushrooms.
Porcini are pungent and flavorful. Garfagnana is famous throughout Italy for its porcini. They can grow very large and command high prices. Over the years, the price has risen so much that many landholders have fenced their property in a vain attempt to keep out those who come gathering mushrooms for money.
Porcini are particular in their growing habits. After the long dry spell of summer, the rain is a welcome relief. The first rains don’t usually soak the forest floor, so everyone waits for the later, heavier downpours. About 10 days after these rains, porcini mushrooms will appear. If it’s too hot or cold, or if the winds blow down from the mountains, there will be few mushrooms. Fortunately, 2012 is the perfect weather and we’re having a bumper crop. (This is a welcome change from last year, when the mushroom harvest was pitiful).
Since I learned that we live at the center of the porcini universe, I’ve been dying to go mushroom hunting. September and October are also the perfect travel weather, so there have been few days without guests (Not that I’m complaining!) An additional factor is the weather, in that I’m not really enthusiastic about traipsing through the forest in a downpour. So you’ll understand how my hopes have been repeatedly dashed.
Fortunately for me, on a recent Sunday I was free and the weather was decent. Our friends Alessandro and Marinella were going with Marinella’s mother ‘for an hour or two’ and invited me along. They have a top secret spot to gather porcini – I knew better than to expect we’d be headed there. My invitation was, according to them, an opportunity to ‘get out of the house’. This suited me, too, as it would reduce the pressure to find a porcino.
Our guide was Marinella’s mother, not surprisingly. She has the knowledge of old timers, plus the latest gossip on where the mushrooms are growing.
Our car climbed above Ghivizzano, passing through the loose collection of houses which comprise Gromignana. We continued for another few minutes, until we were winding through a forest of chestnuts. We parked behind another car – never a good sign if one hopes to find porcini – and climbed out of the car. A quick survey showed me that the area had already been scoured. I spotted overlapping footprints and overturned leaves. This wasn’t at all a disappointment to me, as I really wanted a ‘first experience’. I am confident there will be many other days for serious mushrooming.
It was a beautiful day. It wasn’t perfect, as a regular army of gray clouds marched overhead. But they were not closely organized and allowed regular periods of bright sunshine through. The temperatures in these autumn days are dropping as we head towards winter; this day required a long-sleeved shirt. The passing showers made a lively beat, the drops mostly hitting the treetops. The chestnut canopy is thick and protected us from most of the rain. For mushrooms, this is an ideal environment. The canopy ensures that moisture reaches the ground, but doesn’t evaporate quickly. The wet leaves decay slowly, so porcini mushrooms have lots of food.
Porcini grow best under chestnut and oak tress. The Garfagnana has a sinister invader that is pushing out these trees: the false acacia. The acacia is, like most invasives, a seemingly pleasant addition to the landscape. In June, each tree is covered in delicate white blooms, so fragrant that the whole valley is perfumed. The hillsides turn from deep green to silver when the masses of acacia bloom. The blooms soon turn to seed – millions of long flat pods. Their prolific reproduction rate, combined with their rapid growth means the acacia are quickly crowding out the native trees. (In 2 years, acacias next to Casa La Pace have reached 5 meters in height.) The forest floor changes from moist mulch to desert; the leaves of the acacia don’t block the summer sun, so the moisture evaporates too quickly. No porcini grow among the acacia.
Back to mushroom-gathering:
With little prospect of finding porcini, I focused on all of the other mushrooms I was seeing that aren’t porcini. I had no idea there are so many varieties, practically under my nose. Mari’s mother says some are edible, but none of them knew which ones. (Each year, the newspaper breathlessly recounts the deaths of people who have eaten poisonous mushrooms.) So instead of worrying about porcini, I happily gathered mushrooms with my lens. I perfunctorily scanned the roots of the chestnut trees, stirring the leaves only if they blocked my ‘shot’. I wandered aimlessly, hoping to spot mushrooms much more colorful or odder than porcini (which are fairly dull in appearance).
Marinella meanwhile had been gathering galettas, a beautiful orange-yellow fungo. She says they’re edible and indeed they cooked them up that night.
After an hour or so, we moved on to another hillside. Here, too, were fresh signs of hunters. I slowly climbed, once again looking for reds and yellows, or blacks and whites. Very soon, I spotted a dusky-brown sprout and then its twin nearby. Not daring to hope, I called Alessandro over. He confirmed the impossible: I had found my first porcini!
The remainder of the afternoon passed uneventfully. I continued to stroll until the camera battery died. The others continued their serious search, made more expectant by my discovery (another example of beginner’s luck). As the sun waned, we climbed into the car and headed down the hill. Two porcini don’t make a meal (or at least these two runts of mine), so I insisted that the others include them with their galettas.
It was a happy day. And now I know what I’m looking for; I’m trying to suppress the desire to rush into the woods again – I think I’ve been infected with porcini fever!