In order for mushroom caps to rise up, several conditions need to be met: warm and sunny weather must be preceded by a relatively short rainy period. In the fall as soon as I notice the sun coming up after a rain, I take my basket and a little knife, and I am off on my hunt. The basket keeps the mushrooms from breaking, and I use the knife rather than pulling the mushrooms out because they must be cut at the bottom in order to grow again in next year.
You can never be too safe
When in Istria, I usually go hunting for a couple of mushroom species, mostly porcini and Caesar’s mushrooms, both common to this region. Since there is always the danger of confusing the edible with poisonous mushrooms, you can never be too careful! Even the smallest difference between the different species can present a great danger. As a precautionary measure, every year I revise what I know about the features of each mushroom species, and after the hunt I consult my pickings with experts. That way I am sure that I can safely prepare them for myself and the people around me.
How else to describe this activity but as a treasure hunt? A pleasant stroll with friends along the glades and sunny slopes of the hills of Northwest Istria, where terrific fall delicacies await you at almost every step – what else do we call it? But I am never too convinced about my chances of coming home with a big haul. The mushrooms I want have an excellent camouflage, so you need to focus your eyesight, and know how to recognize a good find! That is why each mushroom I discover gives me so much joy and pride.
Thick and meaty, porcini mushrooms are one of my favorites. Not only because they make a wonderful side dish or main dish, but also because I find so many of them whenever I go mushroom picking. Besides, they are considered the safest mushrooms to pick since there are no poisonous mushrooms that strongly resemble them. Hidden under leaves and pine needles and blending into the background of twigs with their color, porcini mushrooms are experts in camouflage. To make things even more interesting, not all of them have the same identical shape. Their caps can be big, wide and reddish brown, or, on the other hand, they can be extremely dark, almost black and compact. They also have a characteristic white stem and a meaty cap hanging toward the ground. The older the mushroom, the flatter its cap gets, while its stem becomes darker and softer. They can be found either two at a time, or in larger clusters. They usually grow at the bottom of oak trees, pines and birch trees, and the color of their caps may depend on the type of tree that they are close to.
Amanita caesarea, known also as the Caesar mushroom, earned its title by being the favorite item on the menu of Roman emperors. The imperial status was not granted to it accidentally, and it is still considered one of the finest mushrooms out there. It is at the top of my list of favorites, so I like to pick and prepare it. Its most recognizable feature is the white shell that resembles an egg shell, from which it sprouts. I often mistake these mushrooms for pebbles, but if I take a more careful look, I recognize their soft white veil, which remains on the ground after the mushroom has matured. Underneath the reddish or orange cap they have gills which also serve to tell them apart from similar, more dangerous types of mushrooms.
A gourmet experience
When I fill up my basket and head for the kitchen proudly, I first take out a few porcini and Caesar mushrooms to prepare right away. Now there’s a delight! I cut the freshly picked mushrooms into slices, throw them into a pan with a bit of oil and salt, or roast them on an open fire. That is the best way to prepare them, and it gives me satisfaction in burning my fingers feeling to see if they are done. I save the rest for other occasions by cutting them into slices, boiling them, zipping them up and freezing them. That way I can prepare them whenever I want, and my most common choice is to use them for a frittata. Finally, I dry some of the porcini mushrooms and use them in other dishes, or grind them into an aromatic seasoning which I can then mix with other seasonings, such as black pepper.