``Bravo, Giovanni. Bravo!'' shouted our guide, Peppino Ghiorgi, as he dashed through the woods in my direction, followed by a translator, a driver, and a fellow journalist. Here in the cold, damp woods at the foot of the Apennines, I had just poked the tip of my umbrella into a pile of fallen leaves to reveal a small cluster of Boletus edulis -- the highly prized porcini mushroom native to Northern Italy.
I was about to give up. We had been discouraged by many of the local mushroom hunters. ``Too late in the season,'' they said, shaking their heads, ``and too cold.''
But Signor Ghiorgi was undaunted. He had been hunting the fabulous fungi since he was a boy of four, and even this day was plucking mushrooms from the musty earth left and right.
Peppino knows every tree in the forest. ``I found some large ones just here in the spring,'' he said, poking his walking stick among the sweet-smelling ferns.
``Look first for the `spies,' '' he advised, pointing to a small constellation of little white-capped mushrooms standing out against a background of damp chestnut leaves.
``After four or five days of rain, the little `spies' appear. After another 10 days, the porcini begin to show up nearby.''
Porcini are prized by civilized man and wild beast alike. ``Wild boar forage for them,'' our driver had told us earlier in the day as we drove along the winding Taro River from Parma to the mountains.
``Are we apt to run into a boar?'' I asked timidly. ``No, no, they only hunt at night,'' he explained, much to our comfort.
Wild boar may rout out these gourmet snacks at night, but the days belong to the village folk who trek tirelessly through the terrain, baskets in hand, plucking mountains of porcini.
Porcini plucking can be quite a lucrative hobby. ``Some people in the village make 2 to 3 million lire [$1,030-$1,544 US] in a good season -- in their spare time,'' said our guide, never lifting his stare from the soggy ground. ``One man found a porcini that weighed 2 kilos, 400 grams. That's the record here.''
We didn't break any records that morning. But we did end up with enough mushrooms to fill a large handkerchief.
Four hours and a pound of porcini later, we stopped back in town for lunch at the local albergo. Here we were served porcini in five different dishes: pickled in vinegar and oil; raw and thinly sliced with olive oil and ground pepper; large caps, grilled over coals and seasoned with nepiatella, a mintlike herb; in a sauce with tagliatelle ; and saut'eed with scaloppine.
Dried porcini are available outside Italy in any good Italian market and in many gourmet stores and catalogs.
Dried porcini should always be soaked in warm water for at least 20 minutes before using. Strain the liquid through a cloth or coffee filter. This flavorful liquid may be added to the dish you are preparing or saved to flavor soups or sauces.
Marcella Hazan, renowned Italian cooking teacher and author, writes in ``More Classic Italian Cooking'' (New York, Knopf, $15), ``If there were no other reason for going to Italy, the wild mushrooms would be sufficient. Once you have had wild porcini no other dish with mushrooms will taste quite the same again.''
Generally, dried porcini may be used where recipes call for either wild or domesticated mushrooms. Just use fewer porcini and save the juices. A way to stretch the flavor and not the expense is to saut'e a few porcini with the white supermarket variety in any number of recipes.
The following is a recipe for dried porcini with pasta based on one by Marcella Hazan. Macaroni Woodsman Style 1 6/8-ounce package of dried porcini 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced 1/3 cup olive oil 2 cloves garlic, sliced 1/4 pound prosciutto cut in narrow strips 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 cup canned Italian plum tomatoes, finely chopped, with juice 1-pound package penne, ziti, or other short tubular pasta 2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Soak dried porcini in 2 cups warm water at least 20 minutes. Carefully remove and chop. Strain and save juices.
Saut'e sliced garlic in olive oil until golden in color, not brown. Remove and discard garlic. Add proscuitto and porcini with liquid to oil and toss lightly. Cook until juices are almost evaporated.
Add mushrooms, parsley, salt, pepper, and tomatoes with juice. Stir well, cover, and keep on low heat until served.
Cook pasta according to directions on package. Do not overcook. Drain thoroughly.
Combine sauce and pasta and mix thoroughly. Transfer to serving bowl. Sprinkle with some of the cheese and pass extra cheese.
Serves about 4.