My youthful encounters with wild mushrooms did little to prepare me for Italian porcini. The fungus of my childhood is the puffball (Calvatia gigantea). Every year at summer’s end, dozens of these absurd orbs ballooned in the grass of our front yard in central Pennsylvania. My dad picked piles of puffballs and proudly lugged them into the kitchen, where my mom sliced and seasoned them, dipped them in flour, and hauled out a cast-iron skillet to fry them in homemade lard. Thank goodness for the pork fat. If those puffballs had any flavor, they were keeping it to themselves.
Years later, I tasted fresh porcini (pronounced pohr-CHEE-nee) and my appreciation of wild mushrooms was drastically, permanently upgraded. It was autumn at a country restaurant in Tuscany. The cook cleaned one just-picked fungo porcino, removed its stem, drizzled the saucer-sized taupe cap with fruity extra-virgin olive oil, seasoned it with salt and the wild herb nepitella, and grilled it over a wood fire. He served the mushroom alone on a plate, which made it seem really special.
I bit into the juicy flesh. It tasted like meat from the earth—complex, rich, and woodsy. The body was substantial yet tender. Truly this was a mushroom so exciting, it deserved to be called wild.