My daughter, at two-years-old, already understands where her favorite food comes from. “Papa, hunt mauk-mee,” (mushrooms) she says. “Hike.”
How can I resist? I take her in one arm, paper bag and mushroom knife in the other, and we hit the trails behind our house just before sunset.
She has the first find, a blood-red Boletus frostii, nestled beneath a dying beech tree. “Papa, mauk-mee, mauk-mee!” This edible species is among the most brilliantly colored of all boletes, but its sour flavor and mushy texture can leave something to be desired.
“Nice find,” I tell her, “but we are looking for porcini.”
“Chee-nee!” she exclaims, not missing a beat, and for the first time it is clear to me that she understands the difference between a gourmet edible and the legions of bland, bitter, poisonous, or otherwise inedible species.
We march on, my eyes scanning the uphill side of the trail looking for the light-brown cap and swollen stem of Boletus atkinsonii, a member of the porcini group with an affinity for oaks and other hardwoods. But once again, Eliana proves her forager’s eyes are the freshest.
“Chee-nee! Papa, Chee-nee!” Call it beginner’s luck, but she had spotted a plump pair of kings by an old oak on the downhill side of the trail, where I was not even looking. The maggots had gotten them first, but that did little to sully the magic of the moment.
Eliana’s kings were flags, and soon the two of us were following an impressive fruiting of Boletus atkinsonii, climbing along ledges and pulling back leaf litter to reveal their pudgy caps. My daughter was finding as many porcini as I was, her appetite for the hunt as insatiable as my own. Each time we found another, she would yelp out in delight – “Chee-nee! Pick!”; then, “Papa, more!”, as we continued pursuing woodland royalty. She ignored the more pedestrian fare – old man of the woods boletes, rotting milk-caps – in a single-minded quest for chubby, regal piglets.
For this devoted father and forager, it was a revelation, the richest find of the season.
As the sun went down and our bag filled up, I coaxed Eliana out of the woods. She knew exactly what the next step would be in this forest to highchair foraging adventure – “Papa, chee-nee! Eat! Papa, eat!”
When we arrived home, my little forager burst through the door with big pride – “Mama, chee-nee! Hunt, mauk-mee!”
We brushed and rinsed the mushrooms together, then let our porcini sweat off the moisture in a dry cast iron pan before adding a teaspoon of butter and, finally, a dash of heavy cream.
I did not even have time to throw a bib on Eliana. The pile of cooked mushrooms disappeared (with an audible “Mmmm”) as fast as I could spoon them into a bowl. I had to be assertive just to get a few bites, but porcini had never tasted so sweet.