For most of the year, the only porcini mushrooms available around here are the dried (and some say the best) kind, but in recent damp weeks, early shoppers at the Saturday farmers market might have noticed that John Garrone, who sells mushrooms cultivated at Hazel Dell Farm near Watsonville, had a few boxes of the fresh -- and freshly gathered -- article. Even at $20 a pound, the porcini "didn't last long," Garrone says.
Porcini, or Boletus edulis (also known as cepes in France, Steinpilz in Germany, and borovicki in Poland, in all of which countries, as well as Spain, Mexico, and China, it is gathered and sold), is one of those mushrooms that has so far resisted cultivation. (The other popular and stubbornly wild types are chanterelles and morels, though Michigan State University recently applied for a patent on cultivating the latter.) Here, fresh porcini are gathered in West Coast forests -- mainly in Washington and Oregon, which, unlike California, regulate their harvest -- in the autumn and winter, when rain stimulates their growth.
But Garrone agrees with John Czarnecki, author of A Cook's Book of Mushrooms (Artisan, 1995), that the American Boletus doesn't match the flavor of its European cousins. Czarnecki confines his disappointment to the dried mushrooms.
"The field guides declare emphatically that cepes are plentiful in the West, and indeed the fresh specimens I have seen certainly look like cepes and are wonderful when cooked fresh," he writes, "but it is only when they are dried that the real test comes, and none that I have seen have passed."
Garrone goes further, saying that even the fresh European mushrooms are better than the American ones. "Why? I don't know," he says. "The spores look exactly the same. It must be the dirt."
If you don't have $20 to spend on fresh wild mushrooms, you might consider going out to gather them yourself. The East Bay Regional Parks are open for private gatherers, according to Garrone, though there are many ancillary dangers that range from the merely annoying (people showing up with leaf blowers and rakes, as they sometimes do in the Pacific Northwest, to maximize the harvest) to the deadly: the Death Cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides, which figures so prominently in British food critic John Lanchester's recent novel The Debt to Pleasure (Holt).
Fortunately, says Garrone, the Death Cap does not resemble the porcini or any other mushroom commonly gathered for human consumption in this area. But even so, would-be gatherers should consult an authoritative text, such as David Arora's Mushrooms Demystified (Ten Speed Press), just to make sure.