My granny's mushroom sauce
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
My passion for mushrooms started when I was about six years old. I used to spend my summers at an idyllic place, a small, primitive cottage surrounded on three sides by thick woods, the remnants of primeval forests in the Po Valley, and looking to the hills of the Apennines on one side. I went into the woods with my father, a keen gatherer himself, and within less than two minutes I spotted what looked to me to be a nicely formed cèp, that is a porcino. My father had missed it, but gave it the thumbs up and I felt very proud of my find. At the time, porcini mushrooms were thinly cut, dried in the sun, and then the precious paper bag containing them was hung inside a monumental fireplace where all the meals were cooked. The mushrooms took on a slight smoky flavour, and lasted a long time. They were used for a pasta sauce that probably went back at least a hundred years. It was my granny’s recipe, perfected by my mother, and ever since I learned how to cook it. It has been in great demand among our many friends and guests. I therefore translated it into English, and tried to make the recipe as clear as possible. My aim has always been to convey the subtle, intense aroma and flavour of the beautiful Boletus edulisgroup of mushrooms, the cep or penny bun. Only dried porcini can convey that, although one can of course experiment with other types of fungi. And if you want to use chestnut mushrooms, instead of porcini (Boletus edulis, and Boletus group), the sauce will not be so tasty, but it will still be interesting!
Porcini mushroom sauce
This is the way the sauce was made in the country in Northern Italy when I was very young. I then studied it with my mother who made it more than once when we were together for Sunday lunch.
Preparation time: 15-20 minutes
Cooking time: 50 minutes up to one hour, depending on the quantity of mushrooms.
Ingredients for 4 people:
1 small shallot, (or small onion) very finely chopped
One tablespoon unsalted butter (but slightly salted is ok) and two or three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (or good olive oil). The oldest version of this recipe only used country butter, approx. 80-90 grams.
Dried porcini mushrooms. 25 grams should be enough. I use nearly 100 grams for 7 people, though!
1-2 tablespoons of tomato paste diluted in a little hot water or stock (I sometimes add a pinch of sugar). Some tomato passata, or even tinned chopped tomatoes, could be used instead, but I think the paste gives a better flavour. One small chopped tomato can also be added.
1 small bay leaf, dried or fresh
Salt and pepper
Optional: one clove pulverized in a small mortar, and a very tiny pinch of cinnamon. One small clove of garlic, to be removed, is also optional; it gives a deeper flavour.
Soak the porcini in hot water for approximately 15-20 minutes. Reserve some of the soaking liquid, it is very tasty! Then rinse them under the tap, and make sure there is no grit on the stems.
Warm the butter and oil in a heavy bottomed smallish pan. When hot, but not too hot, add the finely chopped shallot, a clove of garlic if you wish and stir with a wooden spoon, on low heat. Add the bay leaf. It will take approximately 7-10 minutes for the shallot to become tender and translucent. You may add a few drops of warm water. It should not burn. If you have added a garlic clove, it should be removed at this stage.
At this point add the soaked porcini, and stir on medium heat. As soon as they are about to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a little water from the soaking. After about 3-4 minutes, add the diluted tomato concentrate, and stir for a couple of minutes. At this point I add one clove pulverized, and the tiniest quantity of cinnamon.
Then add a couple of tablespoons of the soaking water, salt and pepper. Turn the heat down to very low, and let the sauce simmer, partly covering the pot, adding a little soaking water from time to time if necessary. It will probably need stirring quite frequently. The sauce should reduce slowly, but not completely. Attention should be paid so that it does not stick to the bottom of the pan.
For the pasta
Bring a large quantity of water to the boil (1 litre per 100 grams pasta), add 5 grams coarse salt, and cook the pasta according to the instructions printed on the package (usually 9-11 minutes) Quantity: 320 grams for 4 people, (or 80 grams per person) is plenty. Any type will do. Tagliatelle and pappardelle, especially home-made, are very suitable, but fusilli and farfalle are also perfectly fine. Best brands for pasta: Voiello, Rustichella d’Abruzzo, Rummo.
Add a little olive oil if necessary when you mix the sauce with the pasta.
Some people in Italy add grated Parmesan on top, but I never use Parmesan with porcini…
Drawing by Paolo Gheri © https://www.saatchiart.com
Photos by Gioia Olivastri © https://blog.ogi.it