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The Porcini Time
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The porcini season in Tuscany lasts from May to around November, so spotting a basket full of freshly picked Porcini in a local restaurant I decided to sample the menu. But first I asked restaurateur and expert Ilario from the
Del Sonno restaurant why, given all the different varieties of mushrooms to be found growing wild, Porcini have become over the years so popular and so highly sort after.

The answer is simple. For centuries three foods have formed the staple diet of the poor in Tuscany; those of chestnuts, polenta made from chestnut flour and Porcini mushrooms.

Apparently, folk tradition has it that while mushroom picking has always been very popular, there was always the fear of collecting those with toxins, which if eaten would almost certainly lead to an unpleasant death. Porcini mushrooms were regarded as ‘safe,’ with their attractive and easily recognizable shape – large, round, fleshy head on a short round stalk - and very importantly, delicious when fried in butter.

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There are several different types of Porcini mushroom, but those that grow in the chestnut woods are regarded as having the best taste. There are professional pickers who know the best places to find them and who then sell them on to local restaurants and shops, and if they want to make more money, to the cities.

For those keen on trying their hand at foraging for Porcini you need to be up at around 4am to beat the professionals, and then there’s another problem to face before embarking on this adventure; due to the popularity in Italy of this king of mushrooms, a permit is required with a strict quota of collecting no more than two kilos per week. This law has been put in place to prevent over harvesting, and to further ensure their survival the mushrooms have to be collected in open baskets to allow the spores to escape.

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When there is a good supply of fresh Porcini, restaurants like Del Sonno will have a separate menu offering a variety of mushroom based dishes. One of the most popular for those with a good appetite is tagliatelle with prawns and Porcini - a delicious combination.

I decided to try the grilled Porcini served on its own with a side - dressing of virgin olive oil mixed with a local herb called
gnebita. It actually grows wild outside the restaurant and is a member of the mint family.

This simple dish, expertly cooked by chef Jane tasted like a piece of succulent steak, but with a soft, creamy texture inside which just melted in the mouth. Food for the gods indeed!

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The Italians use Porcini in a variety of dishes such as pasta, pizza, soups and risotto, sautéed in butter, the young Porcini sliced and eaten raw in salads – the list is endless. However, not everyone has access to fresh mushrooms; many restaurants freeze them to use out of season, and there is a large commercial world market for dried Porcini, which are sold in the supermarkets. These can add a delicious flavour to many dishes and are how the majority of us eat them.
In our present times of austerity and the drive against obesity, perhaps we can learn a lot from our ancestors. This
poor man’s steak is low in calories and has good levels of protein, minerals, vitamins and fibre, and for some can even be free!

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Chestnuts and Porcini are both a very important part of Tuscan folklore and as such have Festivals dedicated to them.
Cortona is one of the oldest hill towns in Tuscany and organizes an annual Porcini Mushroom Festival at the Parterre Gardens. All the dishes on the menu from starters to side dishes contain fresh Porcini in their recipes and are accompanied by excellent local wines. This year the Festival will take place during the weekend of 18 – 19 August.

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From Tuscan Talent