In Italy this time of year, when the air begins to cool and sunsets color the sky a little earlier each day, markets fill with the delights of Autumn. Among the finest are Porcini mushrooms.
We were there in September last year. Still warm enough to catch some sun and swim by day, but cool in the evenings and wonderful, flavorful dishes with Porcini were just appearing on menus.
Especially in the hills of Tuscany near the Renaissance town of Pienza, the cool evenings call for warm, earthy flavors and excellent, full bodied wines.
Autumn is also harvest time in Italy, and the hearty recipes sustain the work. As tourists, often our work is exploring; walking miles and miles a day, visiting cathedrals, museums, and hiking the hilltops to take in their exquisite beauty.
During our time in Tuscany last year we met with Anna, a guide and sommelier who happens to be one of the most knowledgeable and fun guides I have ever met. She picked us up at our villa, still owned by the Piccolomini family.
As she drove us along the cypress lined roads, over one hill to another one even more beautiful, we laughed until our faces hurt. Amid the laughter we paused to talk of Luca Signorelli, a famous artist who even Michelangelo studied and admired. A field of sunflowers here, rows of grapevines there. We were awestruck as we made our way to the first winery of the day.
She introduced us to the Sangiovese grapes on the vine and explained how even the same hill town of Montalcino has different soil on one side from the other. Each gives the wines produced there different characteristics.
At lunch, she pointed out how the flavors in our 2012 Brunello so perfectly complemented the Tuscan cuisine. The owner of the vineyard lovingly poured local extra virgin olive oil over our bread and we tasted it. Without salt in the bread, the flavor of the oil expanded into each pocket, flavoring the entire piece.
Anna explained a unique trait of traditional Tuscan breads, the lack of salt. Salt was once so expensive, hardly anyone could afford it in the area. She went on to tell us the expressions, “worth your salt” and even our word, salary, came from these times. Typical of Tuscany, tradition still reigns, and the regional breads are still made without salt.
The amazing thing is, their recipes, even without being salty, lack nothing in flavor. The land gives plentifully. Olive oils have a spice and richness that tastes as gorgeous as this land where the olives grow. Mushrooms, called funghi in Italian, delight chefs and consumers alike. Grilled vegetables provide color and flavor. Seasoned cheeses like Pecorino and meats like wild boar beg for the flavors of Brunello.
Our day with Anna taught us much about the area. Tuscany’s natural resources mingled with culture, tradition, and history. Amazing how often that happens in Italy.
That evening we put on our jackets as the air cooled into the 50s, having been 80 something earlier that day. As we climbed the spiral staircase behind our villa, the scent of rosemary welcomed us to the top. Amid rosemary bushes and olive trees, an infinity pool overlooking the valley sparkled in starlight. We sat in silence except for the nature around us gazing at the stars, thinking of all the history here.
Battles fought. Artists who happened by. Architects who built the home. The family of the Contessa who had welcomed us the day before, the same Piccolomini family that also gave the world Pope Pius II and his town of Pienza.
The Borgo cat walked us home, brushing up on our legs and purring. “Buonanotte, piccolino”, we whispered back, petting him as we shut the door.
The next day at the Contessa’s recommendation, we visited the town of Pienza right at sunset. After parking the car, the road that led into the town and behind the Duomo offered expansive views of neighboring hill towns and villas with driveways marked by cypress trees.
The colors in the sky were spectacular, one swoosh of magenta reminding us that God is the greatest painter of all. We lingered until the sun was almost gone and went to find a restaurant. “Terrazza Val d’Orcia”, hinted at the views and the cuisine inside.
We asked for a table and a recommendation, “la pasta con funghi Porcini, Signora”, the waitress told me. Easy sell. We all ordered some type of Porcini dish that night as we watched the sun sink into the hills and sipped wine that suited the mushrooms perfectly.
Occasionally, we get to live a moment that is better than our dreams. That evening was one of those moments.
All over Italy this time of year, you will find Porcini on the menu. Emilia Romagna even hosts a festival in their honor in early October. During our two weeks there, I think I had Porcini almost every day. That evening in Pienza was the most memorable.
When we want to make a special meal here at home, an Italian artisanal pasta with Porcini mushrooms, extra virgin olive oil, and Brunello we bought with Anna is among our favorites.
Dried Porcini can be found in supermarkets stateside. We get our pasta from Mia Emilia, where we know the quality is fabulous, the texture is authentic, and the noodles are full of flavor. For this dish, I like the tagliatelle egg pasta. For the EVOO, try Mia Emilia’s Marini Giuseppe Toscano IGP.
Soak the dried Porcini in warm water for about 30 minutes (or follow directions on the package). Be sure to reserve the water, it becomes a delicious broth!
We have played with this, and you can too, but here is what I recommend:
Sauté a little bit of garlic and the mushrooms in extra virgin olive oil.
Add in a splash of wine and cook for a few minutes.
Add a little bit of the water used to soak the Porcini, enough to coat the pasta, but not make it watery.
Cook the pasta until it’s almost done, but not quite, and stir it into the sauce, adding more of the Porcini water if needed. Finishing the pasta in the sauce will allow it to soak up the flavors from the Porcini water.
Serve and top with a good drizzle of EVOO, and a glass of Brunello. Enjoy slowly as you taste Tuscany, and feel it warm your heart.