Suddenly it’s porcini season in Tuscany. There aren’t many of the plump, firm, terracotta-colored mushrooms in our usually prolific bosco, but they’re all over the markets in Cortona and Camucia. Where are they from? “Umbria,” said the market lad in Camucia, and up in town, Ali at the vegetable stand said his were from Friuli.
A likely story, say my neighbors, who scorn anything that’s not home-grown: They probably come from Yugoslavia. As if Yugoslavia, no longer on the map, was somewhere in hell. (Which it might be.)
Porcini, little pigs of the forest, are Boletus edulis. Back in the day, local folks used to scramble for these treasures. Other kinds of mushrooms were also valued but porcini were the prize because they could be sold, and commanded a high price from Cortona restaurants, adding scarce quadrini to country folks’ pockets. In porcini season, Gino the contadino, aka Bossolo (“spent cartridge”), was always out in the forest before dawn, gathering huge baskets full that he’d then take into Cortona to sell in the piazza. Curiously, this blustery, self-confident braggart (I loved Gino but a little went a very long way) became the picture of humility once he reached the Etruscan walls of Cortona. I realized early on that the bluster was a façade that didn’t travel far. Within the confines of town, Gino was reduced to a country bumpkin, all but tugging at his forelock as he approached his betters, or as they approached him for his porcini. It was a graphic illustration of an age-old Tuscan story, how the city imposes its power on the countryside and grows in wealth and influence thereby. In essence, Gino was a throwback to the High Middle Ages.
I bought the Umbrian mushrooms in the market last Thursday and trimmed them, scraping away the earth and dried oak leaves that clung to them, then sliced them quite thick and fried them gently in olive oil with a couple of slivered cloves of garlic. Some of the slices almost melted in the hot oil while others grew crisp—a nice texture contrast. And because they gave off such a bosky Tuscan aroma, I pulled out a couple of plain pork sausages from the freezer and fried them up too. More Tuscan than that, you simply can’t get, not even with a bistecca chianina.