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Mystery and intrigue lie in the hills around Wellington.
I was out walking the dog recently, and he barked madly at something in the bushes. A cloaked man. “I’m just here for the birds”, he claimed initially, but eventually admitted he was foraging – for Porcini.
I couldn’t work out why he was being so secretive about gathering plain old mushrooms, but these are not your average fungi. Porcini are the King of Mushrooms.
People die for them, literally. The porcini industry is a billion-dollar global trade, infiltrated by organised crime. Called the anarchist of the fungi kingdom, porcini cannot be cultivated commercially, so supply is a problem.
In Italy it is illegal to forage for porcini, because doing so can be life-threatening. In the Italian mountains, where they grow precariously close to precipices, they have accounted for 3,000 mountain rescue operations in recent years. Distinct sleuthing talent is required to collect the world’s most valued wild mushroom under cover of darkness while hoping not to be caught.
Italians are very particular about their porcini, and will pay two to three times as much for their own primo funghi as for the Chinese product. China supplies 75% of the global market, providing a great income for many poor farmers. In three intensive months, they can double their annual income, so it’s worth going the full hog.
Technically porcini are not a single mushroom species. The prized boletus edulis is part of a group of around twenty species of mushroom, the bolete family. Porcini have spongey tubes underneath that release their spores, rather than the classic mushroom gills.
The name porcini means “Little Pig” in Italian, because of their distinctive shape. They are also known as king boletes, cèpes in French, penny buns in England, and Steinpilz (“stone mushroom”) in German.
Tom Hutchison, head chef at Capitol, first discovered porcini when a friend sent him a box of them from Christchurch. “It was like finding gold”. Now he is a keen forager.
He prefers the aromatics of the older porcini, likening them to truffles, but says the younger ones are more flavoursome. He uses them in risotto and ravioli, and wrapped in puff pastry. But his personal favourite is simply to saute them “with butter, salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon”.
Porcini were first discovered here, in Christchurch’s Hagley Park, probably introduced on the imported roots of container-grown beech, birch, and oak in the mid 19th century. In the past couple of years they have been found in our Wellington bush, mainly under radiata pines mycorrhized with porcini hyphae, or filaments, which release enzymes to absorb nutrients. Porcini flourish happily in a symbiotic relationship by a living tree. They are not easy to find in amongst the forest litter, and you have to work hard to find them.
There appear to be no official guidelines on their safety in areas that are sprayed regularly, or their use in eating establishments. Suppliers are not obliged to provide any information about their sources. “It’s a bit of a grey area”, I was told by the Wellington City Council. The Ministry of Primary Industries likewise had very little information.
My man on the track, who wishes not to be named for obvious reasons, says he works seven sites around the Wellington hills, “seven days a week, five hours a day”.
His grandmother taught him to forage at the age of five, and it’s a good business. He makes $50 per kg, and supplies local restaurants where he’s well known. The fungus is found on deciduous trees like linden and oaks, as well as pines. It takes time and effort to learn where and when to find them, information which is jealously guarded. He certainly wasn’t giving me any tips, but he did share his favourite recipe. “Sliced, sauteed in butter and eaten with a pinch of salt and black pepper, on ciabatta”.
One secret he did give away – if you can’t find/afford truffles, fry porcini with garlic, olive oil, and shaved parmesan, and serve on brushetta. “It will taste just like white truffles”.
As he was about to scurry off with his haul, he reached into his pocket. I felt a flicker of fear, but he just pulled out his phone.