Even after a hot and stormy summer, in the last few days of October, people in villages across Liguria will be praying for the sunshine to last. For with the first frosts in the mountains and woodlands of the region comes the end of a period of gastronomic gold: the porcini season.
Years ago, in late September, I sat on the edge of the fountain in Piazza de Ferrari, in the centre of Genova. It was a humid day, with an overcast sky that let in the Mediterranean sun, but blocked out the blue. I was waiting to meet some friends. An old man in a tweed cap walked slowly and unsteadily across the square, then took a seat beside me, resting from the damp heat. “Perfect weather for the porcini,” he said, by way of a greeting. I laughed and asked if he liked mushrooms. “Who doesn’t?” he answered. And then, in the middle of the traffic and noisy bustle of the city, the old man began to tell me a story about a passion for food and nature, and about just what porcini can do to people.
No secret is better kept than where to find the best mushrooms.
“No secret is better kept than where to find the best mushrooms”, he started. “When I could walk better, my brother and I would spend every weekend in September and October in the woods. But never together. We had our own special places, which we kept for ourselves. One Sunday morning, we’d been to church and were walking home, talking about where each of us planned to hunt for funghi that day. I said I was going to look in the woods behind the church, and my brother said he was going to look in the woods by the river.
Two hours later, I was naturally in one of my secret spots in the next valley, when I heard steps in the fallen leaves. I stayed still and listened. Was it a boar? No, I could hear that it was a person. A hunter, maybe? I was deep in the woods, so I didn’t want any trouble, and didn’t want to startle anyone. I called out “Buongiorno!”. The reply came back: “Mario? Is that you?”. It was my brother…”.
For a region so in love with good food as Liguria, it’s hardly surprising that the porcini drives even brothers to deceit. The hunt for these delicately perfumed mushrooms generates strong emotions, but the hunt itself is wonderfully gentle. Right now, Liguria’s hinterland forests are a blaze of burnished orange and rust, and the slow, steady search for the matt brown caps of the porcini is an almost meditative experience. All you hear is the rustle of the dry, fallen leaves and the breeze in the tops of the trees. Your senses become attuned to the earthy aromas and colours around you, and to the weakened warmth of the sun. It’s an utterly relaxing way to spend a few hours. And if you don’t find any mushrooms, there’s always chestnuts to gather.
Each area of Liguria has its own recipes to do justice to these delicious morsels: Picagge pasta with porcini sauce, zuppa di porcini, potatoes and porcini roasted together in the oven. And just as each village and family has its own recipe, guests and locals alike can also enjoy the many festivals which take place throughout autumn and early winter, celebrating the porcini and chestnut season. Alongside the mushrooms, there’ll be traditional chestnut flour pasta and the rich, dark “castagnaccio” cake to try.
I found my own personal “porcini paradise” in Castelbianco in the province of Savona. Not a place in the forest, but a restaurant. In “Da Gin”, I discovered autumn on a plate and a perfect example of Liguria’s famous “green” cuisine. Picture this: a perfect, aromatic porcini, gathered just that morning from the local woods, sliced in two, lovingly pan-fried with olive oil, garlic and parsley, then served on a fresh chestnut leaf. It tasted as simply perfect as it looked.