Shhhhh. Do you hear that? From the depths of the rain drenched coastal hills in Northern California the wild porcini are awakening from their sleep beneath the pines. Coaxed at last by the long-awaited El Niño rains, the most prized of all culinary fungi are raising their reddish-brown caps through the thick, leafy debris that blankets the forest floor. The hunt is on!
Prized among chefs and amateur gourmets alike, the King Bolete is sought after for its exquisite earthy-nutty flavor and meaty texture. It is distinguished by a broad, light to reddish-brown cap, lack of gills, and characteristic bulbous stalk that often extends well beneath the surface of the ground. *Please note: NEVER EVER eat a mushroom unless you are 100% certain of the variety. When in doubt, throw it out!
They can grow quite large; in fact, my prize specimen from last year weighed over a pound! I can only hope the Mushroom God will bring me similar good fortune this season.
I head out early in the morning full of excitement and anticipation. I know of a choice spot where I have found porcini in the past. Unfortunately, the area is known by other foragers so getting a jump on the day may mean the difference between success or an empty basket.
The brisk air is still heavy with dew, and all is quiet but for the sharp crack of twigs breaking under my rubber boots as I trudge into the woods. Tangles of thorny blackberry vines grab at my pants and shirt, threatening to send me tumbling face first into the underbrush. I crouch low and make my way slowly through the forest, ducking under branches, through spider webs, and over fallen logs. This work is not glamorous, but the possible reward for my efforts pushes me onward. I pull my lucky cap down snug over my ears and forge ahead. The musty smell of wet, rotting leaves and rich earth fills my lungs as I strain to see the telltale shape of a porcini in hiding. Somewhere, in a tree overhead, a woodpecker taps out an urgent warning to my intended quarry in Morse Code:
Forager in the woods! Stop.
Deploy camouflage or you will be found and eaten! Stop.
Foraging for wild mushrooms is akin to hunting for treasure. Success is dependent on weather, timing, and to a great extent, luck. This year’s late rains and frigid temperatures have delayed the first fruiting and further complicated the hunt. Thus far, I’ve invested a grand total of six hours on two prior outings tramping through dark, dense woods and thickets only to come up empty-handed. But today feels different. I am taunted by thoughts of the elusive bounty and how it will taste in a sumptuous mushroom and Farro risotto.
And then, as if the Mushroom God is granting my wish, I see the cap of a porcini–barely visible in its hiding place under a downed tree branch.
I clear away the pine needles and inhale the rich fragrance of success as I dig down to expose the stem. My risotto dream is suddenly beginning to take real shape!
Three hours later, with soggy feet and muddy hands, my victory is complete. I have not one, but five gorgeous specimens to show for my persistence (pictured here in comparison to my size 8 boot); including one which rivals last year’s prize. This is what triumph looks like:
Back home in my kitchen, I prepare a risotto feast fit for the Gods using locally grown organic Farro from Canvas Ranch as the perfect foundation for this memorable dish.
Farro is an heirloom wheat that originated over 3,000 years ago in ancient Babylon where it was popular long before the Italians discovered and began cultivating it in Italy. Also known as Emmer, it is a hearty, highly nutritious, whole grain with a nutty flavor and chewy texture that stands up well in soups, salads (with roasted veggies), and risotto. It is a good source of protein and complex carbohydrates with about one-third the gluten of modern wheat which makes it more easily digestible.
Local farmers Deborah Walton & Tim Schaible own Canvas Ranch in Two Rock Valley just west of Petaluma, California. The couple began growing a small field of Farro in 2009 after Deborah discovered the grain on a trip to Terra Madre in Italy.
“Our Farro is dry farmed which makes it ideally suited to the drought conditions we’ve experienced in California in recent years,” says Tim. To date, Canvas Ranch is the only grower in California to produce this crop, and the demand for their Farro has exceeded expectation. They sell it in bulk to chefs, and in one pound bags perfect for home cooks at the year-round Sunday Marin Civic Center Farmers Market and Thursday Marin Civic Center Farmers Market in San Rafael, and the Santa Rosa Farmers Market at Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa on Saturday (March-December).
Enjoy the fruits of their labor (and my foraged delights) in this stellar comfort food recipe for Wild Porcini-Farro Risotto with Herbs. I recommend eating this satisfying one-dish meal curled up in front of a fire with a nice glass of red wine.
Farminista’s Wild Mushroom-Farro Risotto (serves 4-6)
Printable recipe: Farministas Wild Mushroom Farro Risotto
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons EVOO
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 5 cups sliced wild porcini (or mixed wild) mushrooms
- 3 teaspoons fresh thyme
- salt & pepper to taste
- 2 cups Farro, soaked 4-6 hours in water & drained
- 4 cups free range organic chicken stock
- 3 tablespoon mascarpone cheese
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- In a large saucepan, melt the butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft. Add mushrooms and thyme and continue cooking until mushrooms release their liquid and soften. Season with salt & pepper to taste. Set aside.
- In a separate large saucepan, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add drained Farro and sauté until lightly toasted. Add the chicken stock, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition and simmering until the liquid is absorbed.
- After adding the final 1/2 cup of stock, add the mushroom mixture to the pan. Stir in mascarpone cheese and cover. Simmer until the liquid is absorbed and the risotto is creamy. Stir in the Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.