If you go for a walk in the woods one of these crisp Piemontese autumn mornings, you may meet a man carrying a wicker basket. In it, a few small mushrooms on a bed of fern. ‘Oh,’ you will say, ‘not so lucky today?’ – ‘No,’ he will answer, with a rueful look into his basket. ‘Not much luck today. Or maybe I just don’t know where to look.’ And, with a slight shrug of the shoulders, he will say: ‘Maybe this wood is not good for mushrooms. Good luck to you though.’
But if you were to come to the house of this man in these days, you will find him sitting at his kitchen table, carefully cleaning porcini mushrooms the size of his fist. He will be surrounded by several wicker baskets, full of glorious nut-brown and stone-grey specimens, resting on their bed of fresh green fern.
They will be everywhere, these mushrooms: the vegetable drawers of the fridge overflowing with them, in baskets and on newspaper nests scattered through the kitchen. And the man will explain to you, with a gentle smile and a young boy’s glint in his eyes: a mushroom hunter never tells his secrets. Never divulges his best spots, where the porcini sprout in heavy bunches under the red and brown autumn leaves. Any mushroom hunter in Piemonte will put his best finds under the bed of fern, as he is walking through the woods. If you meet anyone on an autumn morning in Piemonte, they will swear that there has never a good mushroom been found in these woods in living human memory.
If you meet anyone on an autumn morning in Piemonte, they will swear that there has never a good mushroom been found in these woods in living human memory.
But if you sit at a kitchen table in Piemonte in these days, a man, cleaning his mushrooms with a sharp little knife, shaping their bottoms into neat diamond facets, will glow with pride about his rich harvest. And you will be invited to eat with him and enjoy the bounty of autumn. Maybe you will eat the mushrooms raw, thin slivers scattered over a plate of carne cruda, finely sliced raw beef, drizzled with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.
Maybe you will eat the mushrooms in a sauce, with salsiccia di Bra, juicy veal and pork sausage, so tender and fresh it can be eaten raw. The sausage will be stewed with the porcini and a few tomatoes from the man’s garden, the last summer tomatoes, so sweet that there is not even need to add any sugar to the sauce.
You will eat the sauce with homemade pasta, tagliatelle or tagliolini, even finer strips of pasta. And the man will argue with his cousin, who has just stopped in from his afternoon cycle for a glass of water, and to see how the mushroom harvest is going this year. The cousin will say that he prefers his tagliatelle wide, the better to pick up the sauce, and the man’s son will agree with the cousin, saying that the best pasta are in fact the maltagliati, ‘badly cut ones’, strips of all different lengths and sizes as may happen when you make your own pasta; because with maltagliati, every bite is different. The man won’t argue much, because he is a peaceful man, and quiet, but he is sure of it: the tagliolini are the best, finely cut and even, because that’s how his wife makes them.
The man won’t argue much, because he is a peaceful man, and quiet, but he is sure of it: the tagliolini are the best, finely cut and even, because that’s how his wife makes them.
And his wife will make mushroom sauce for the pasta that Sunday, and the next day maybe a risotto, with chunks of his porcini dotting the plate of creamy rice. A large part of the mushrooms she won’t be able to use straight away, so she will cut them in thin slices, soak them in egg and dust them with flour. Then she will freeze them, prepared like this, so they are ready for frying straight from the freezer.
And you will be urged to take some of the mushrooms home with you – there are so many! Have some, please! – wrapped in newspaper or a paper bag, not to break their stately shapes. As you hold the bag, ready to say good-bye in the setting sun, the man will insist you also take some of his tomatoes, and a couple of spiky red and yellow pomegranates, and a bunch of the grapes he has left over from making wine, freisa or barbera or nebbiolo, purple and sugary-sweet. And you will feel rich and fortunate and blessed, like this man, on a golden October day in Piemonte.
But if you meet this man in the woods, he will be an unlucky man, none of the fortunes of autumn for him. And don’t even ask the truffle hunters. They are just out walking their dogs.