September is the beginning of the school year for many excited students, and it is also an exciting time for many connoisseurs for it marks the start of the porcini season. Porcini mushrooms are one of the most precious exports from Italy. The rich, meaty and heady mushrooms season salads and soups like no other vegetables, but also manage to stand up against more flavourful meats such as beef and guinea fowl.
Grissini at Grand Hyatt just launched the porcini mushroom menu last week. All the porcini are flown in from Italy and because they can only last a few days after harvest, one can be sure that they are fresh. The new chef de cuisine, Andrea Fraire, also started his appointment on the same day. One might think Chef Andrea, a 27-year-old from Piedmont, has an easy start because his first task is the popular porcini menu. After all, there is almost no "wrong" way of cooking these funghi. Just to prove ourselves right, four of us went for dinner last Saturday.
There are ten dishes on the porcini mushroom menu, four of which are antipasti. Although the Chef recommends Carpaccio di Manzo con Porcini Parmigiano Reggiano e Olio Affumicato (Beef Carpaccio and Porcini with Parmigiano Reggiano Shavings, Smoked Extra Virgin Olive Oil), which in his opinion lets the true flavour of the porcini shine through, I could not resist the Prosciutto de Cinghiale e Lardo di Colonnata con Porcini Marinati (Wild Boar Ham and "Lardo di Colonnata" with Marinated Porcini). My heart skipped a beat when I saw "lardo di Colonnata" on the menu. Who can resist pork fat?
There are a few things going on with this dish - the saltiness of the wild boar, the sweetness of the lardo, and the slight vinegar taste of the porcini - and they meld together in the most sublime way. The delicate, silky slices of lardo melts in your mouth, slightly seasoned by the wild boar. The porcini, which has been blanched in equal parts of white wine, water and white vinegar, retains its texture and balances the briny and buttery taste of the ham and fat. The presentation of the dish is exquisite without being overly embellished.
Another simple way of enjoying porcini is the Cartoccio di Porcini all'Aglio e Rosmarino (Oven Baked Whole Porcini with Rosemary and Taggiasca Olive Oil) and so we decided to order this to share among the table. The porcini are just seasoned with rosemary - Chef Andrea believes rosemary and garlic bring out the best in porcini - and baked in the oven. At first we were disappointed by the size of the porcini; we were expecting giant pieces of mushrooms bursting out of the aluminum foil package. Chef Andrea told me later that the smaller ones are sweeter and more flavourful. Unlike diamonds, bigger isn't always better.
Of the three pasta dishes available, I sampled the Tagliatelle con Porcini Freschi, Pomodori Arrostiti e Salsiccia Toscana (Homemade Tafliatelle with Porcini, Oven Roasted Tomatoes and Tuscan Pork Sausage) and the Risotto Acquerello ai Funghi Porcini Freschi (Risotto "Acquerello" with Fresh Porcini Mushroom). The former consists of sliced porcini, first sautéed with garlic and rosemary before the halved cherry tomatoes and Italian sausage are added. A spoonful of gravy poured in before this lovely concoction is tossed with the homemade tagliatelle, made with "00" flour and Italian eggs. While the pasta can be a bit more al dente, this light simple dish is choked full of flavours that don't compete with one another.
While mushroom risotto is a classic, the fresh porcini version is another level of goodness. Very often dried porcini are used in the recipe, giving the dish a powerful and earthy base note. When fresh ones are used in the stock (made with chicken, so it is not a vegetarian dish), the taste is a little milder, more delicate. As a result, the rice takes on the porcini flavour as it cooks while the chopped porcini that get folded into the risotto provide a meaty bite to the dish.
There are also three secondi piatti on the menu - guinea fowl, turbot fillet, and beef fillet. Sautéed porcini are served on the side.
Chef Andrea proves that one cannot go wrong with porcini, but he also reminded me that these mushrooms can taste vastly different, depending on how they are cooked. On a separate note, due to the lack of rainfall this autumn (it is autumn in Europe, after all) he told me the white truffle season might be delayed this year. In the mean time, feast on porcini!