One of my favourite local mushrooms is a beauty called the Boletus edulis. Around the world it has many names, Porcini (piglet) in Italy, Cepe in France, the Steinpilz (stone mushroom) in Germany and variations in many other countries. It also occurs in China, South America, New Zealand and South Africa to name a few more countries. It is considered the king of mushrooms and sometimes referred to the King Bolete locally. The mushroom tends to grow large with a beefy stem and thick cap, under lain by a soft sponge like substance under the cap. The sponge is actually a series of many tubes which provide a mechanism for the fungi to release spores into the environment.
Why is it so beloved around the world? Because it has an incredible, sweet and nutty flesh that is aromatic and soft in texture. Most often people will have come in contact with the dried mushroom pieces. Dehydrating concentrates the flavour into something deep, rich and smoky, with a hint of caramel and spice. The fresh mushroom is relatively perishable, so drying is a necessity to preserve the mushroom beyond its short season. The fresh mushroom is a rare and wonderful treat. The taste is one of the best things I know and the texture is soft and sensual. It is the stuff of culinary dreams.
In the field, you will find porcini in a range of Vancouver Island environments. On the east side of the island, they favour low areas near treed areas above the beach. Usually there are plants like Douglas Fir and salal around to shade it. In the higher altitude hills of the central island, look for steep slopes with a mixture of trees like Douglas Fir, Hemlock and Sitka Spruce. As you head toward the west coast of the island you will see increasing numbers of Sitka Spruce and cedar – probably the prime habitat for porcini on Vancouver Island. And finally when you reach the shore of the west coast, look for porcini above beaches, near the treeline of salal, hemlock and Sitka Spruce trees, nestled in the salal but loving patches where a little sunlight shines through. If you hunt for the Porcini, be prepared for a little heartbreak. The aromatic quality of the mushroom also attracts insects like the fungus gnat which lays eggs on the mushroom as a future home for the larva that will hatch and tunnel throughout the flesh. The best luck will be in sunny days after a rainy stretch in September and early November. The cool nights of the fall will limit (or at least delay) the onset of insects devouring the fruiting mushrooms.
There are also a few other boletes around the island, some cause gastric upset when eaten in quantity. These trouble boletes usually stain blue when cut or bruised. There are also cousins like the suillus and leccinium species and recent science has split off some of the other sponge capped fungi into a number of new categories. But back to the porcini – it is defined by the enlarged and firm base, the top can be light brown to dark brown in colour. Younger specimens will be very firm and the sponge will appear pale almost whitish in colour, turning yellow, then greenish as it ages. If you find one, search online or find a good guidebook to verify the species. And of course cut it open before you get too excited to make sure the worms haven’t beat you to the punch.
Bill Jones is a chef, author and food consultant based on Deerholme Farm.