Punk Domestics in Italy 2015: Foraging for Porcini ... or Not | Punk Domestics

Punk Domestics in Italy 2015: Foraging for Porcini ... or Not

On our penultimate day in Italy, we were scheduled to go foraging for porcini up in the Apennines. From the day we arrived, though, my local guide Dalia kept mentioning that the porcini season was lackluster this year, and with nights being so cold, they were likely not going to happen, but not to worry, we would find something. Every day, assurances: Don't worry, we'll find something, with a knowing nod. 

Portico di Romagna

In the morning we drove to the quaint town of Portico di Romagna, close to the Tuscan border, where we met Matteo, our forager. We slapped on some muddy boots in preparation. 

Appropriate footwear for foraging

So it was that we piled into Matteo's van. We drove a few minutes out of town, pulled over on the roadside, and let out the dog, Otto. We were going to hunt truffles instead. Hello! 

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Matteo, our forager

Otto the truffle hunting dog

This particular area is a truffle preserve. Only four people are licensed to forage in that zone: Matteo and his father, and another father-son pair in the village. Truffle hunters are notoriously secretive of their spots, but as none of us was licensed to hunt there, he had no reason to keep it from us. 

As we tromped through the forest, Otto would meander around, occasionally stopping at the base of a tree to sniff and dig. Matteo would move the dog to the side, give him a treat, and then use his hands to suss up a bit of earth and give it a whiff to see if truffles were present. It didn't take long before he found a few small black truffles. 

Matteo and his truffles

Matteo and Otto hunting for truffles

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Black truffle

JF has a truffle!

So, this pretty much blew our minds right out of the gate (as JF's expression illustrates), but Matteo was nonplussed. There are a few varieties of black truffles, he explained. They have a long season, nearly 10 months of the year, and are pretty common. White truffles are rarer, with a shorter season, and command much higher prices. 

He explained that one indicator of black truffles is a lack of vegetation around the base of the tree it's attached to. The spores "burn" the soil radially around the tree, an indication that the truffles are in formation. 

After some time, as we're hiking on the slope of a hill, Otto abruptly stopped his meandering, took a hard 90° right, and made a beeline down the hill. "I promise you," Matteo said, "there's a white truffle there." 

Again, he went down, moved the dog, and began to disturb earth. But even before he could bring it to his nose, all of use within a 10-foot radius suddenly gasped. The air was perfumed with the scent of truffle. It was different than the black truffles' scent, muskier and less earthy. He carefully dug with his fingers until he pulled out a sizeable white truffle. Then he pulled out three more. Combined, they'd be worth about $300 on the market. 

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Matteo and his truffles

High on adrenaline and the scent of truffles, we made our way back into town, but first, we made a stop at a nearby attraction. Il Buco del Diavolo, the devil's mouth, sometimes simply referred to as Hell. This is a naturally occurring vent of volatile gases that has been burning since at least th 16th century. 

Il Buco del Diavolo

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Il Buco del Diavolo

Back in Portico, we went to Al Vecchio Convento, a charming inn and restaurant  run by Matteo's family. Matteo and his brother Massimiliano are both chefs, having staged at Michelin-starred restaurants, and now run the restaurant, while their parents manage the hotel. The brothers had plans for the day's haul. 

Al Vecchio Convento, Portico di Romagna

Matteo and his truffles

Truffles!

Chef Massimiliano

We started with some cooking demos in the kitchen. Matteo brought out some pieces of pig skin that had been boiled, scraped of fat, and chilled. Instantly, I knew what was in store. When cut and fried, they puff up to become chicharrones, in exactly the same style as 4505 Meats here in San Francisco. They are light and fluffy, and melt on the tongue. 

Chicharrones

Enjoying the chicharrones

As we settled in for a full lunch, lasting hours as meals do in Italy, the brothers lavished us with rich autumnal fare, like a porcini risotto, and sous vide venison loin with truffle sauce and fried fresh porcini. 

Porcini risotto

Venison loin in truffle sauce, fried porcini

By midafternoon, we were stuffed from the amazing fare, but Marisa, the mother, had made a dessert for us. She was self-effacing, noting that her sons were the real chefs, but she had made a little something for us, a chestnut crème caramel. As it was set in front of me, I couldn't fathom how I was going to eat it, until I took the first bite, followed by another, and another, until it was simply gone. This dessert has haunted me since that day, and now I've been able to get my hands on the recipe. (See below)

Chestnut flan

This was a good day. 

We're going back this October. Want to join? Click here for more information.

Saren, Joel and Jenny

Recipe:

Chestnut Crème Caramel By

Prep Time: 40 Minutes

Cook Time: 4 Hours 20 Minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients
  • 2 1/2 cups (500 g) sugar, divided
  • 3 1/2 cups (500 g) peeled chestnuts
  • 4 cups (1kg) milk
  • 2 cups (500 g) heavy cream
  • Seeds of one vanilla bean
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 6 whole eggs
  • 6 egg yolks
Recipe Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
  2. Make the caramel by cooking 1 1/2 cup (300 grams) of the sugar in a copper saucepan over low heat until it melts and turns dark, being careful not to burn. Pour into two crème caramel molds.
  3. Combine the chestnuts and 2 cups of the milk in a nonreactive pot and bake in the oven for 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Separate the chestnuts and milk, reserving the milk in a bowl. Purée the chestnuts in a blender.
  4. Combine the cooked milk with the remaining milk, cream, vanilla, and lemon zest, Bring to a simmer. Remove from heat.
  5. Combine the eggs and yolks with the sugar, and whisk until integrated. Add the cream mixture in small batches, whisking constantly; if you add the hot cream too quickly, it will curdle the eggs. When all the cream is added, stir in the chestnut purée. Mix well, and pour into the molds over the caramel.
  6. Place the molds in a bain marie, and bake for 4 hours. Allow to cool, invert, and serve.
Recipe Generator courtesy of BBQ Island
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