Finding Porcini

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in southwestern France, a region which – at the time – was being struck by a unseen spell of global wetting. Summer had arrived three months early, people said. April and may had been exceptionally dry and warm; but in July, autumn was knocking on the door of our vacation home. Early autumn, I was told by our gentle host Philippe, goes hand in hand with a peculiar phenomenon: fungi frenzy/mushroom madness. All the locals get this strange misty-eyed look and head for the woods to hunt for the precious boletus edulis, more commonly known as  fungo porcino, porcine mushroom, cep and lovingly referred to as “the brown plague”, as it tends to halt the local economy.

When Philippe invited me to join him on an early morning quest for porcini, I gladly accepted. It sounded like a treasure hunt, as fresh porcini are sold for outrageous prices to local restaurants. And who doesn’t enjoy a good treasure hunt after breakfast? We left for the woods, armed only with wooden baskets, a knife and a sturdy 4×4.

Mushroom hunting, I found out quickly, is an art in its own right. Slowly and carefully, like an old sensei, Philippe unveiled his mushroom hunting mysteries. And as the mysteries disappeared, a neat set of categorized heuristics came trickling through:

The Mission

  • “Ready Zeger? So, we’re looking for cèpes, têtes de negres and chanterelles. Leave the others be. Some are poisonous, others just don’t taste nice”
  • “When we stop? When we’re finding more mushrooms than we can carry. Or when we’re not finding anything anymore.”

Classification

  • “Wait, you don’t know what to look for, do you? Come over here for a sec. This is a vintage cèpe. A fungho porcino. Like all other boletes, it has tubes extending downward from the underside of the cap, rather than gills. The pore surface of fruit body is whitish when young, but ages to a greenish-yellow when older.”
  • “Be careful there. Some mushrooms look very much like porcini. You should look under the hood. If it’s yellow, don’t touch ’em.”
  • “When you’re not really sure, scratch the bottom of the hood. When the scratch turns purple, don’t touch.”

Timing

  • “Why we’re heading out all of a sudden? Porcini tend to appear after summer peaks, depending on the weather. Usually they pop up about a week after a wet spell.”
  • “Oh no, that’s not true, Zeger. The fact that we picked loads of mushrooms here doesn’t mean I’m not coming back here tomorrow. These things grow fast. They often push overnight, you know.”

Location

  • “Location is everything. You should look at open spots in the woods, where the sun can actually reach the ground. Look, that should be a good place over there. Do you see the sunbeams peaking through the leafs? Let’s head over there.”
  • “When you find one, mind your step. Where there is one, there are many. You might crush some perfectly good ‘shrooms hidden under some leaves or grass.”
  • “Spotting porcini takes a trained and experienced eye. Here’s a pro-tip: look for where the leaves bunch up – perhaps they are being pushed up by a growing mushroom.”
  • “Don’t spend your time looking near ferns, man. Ferns grow on intensely acid soil, porcini don’t”
  • “Hey Zeger! You see this black beauty here? This is a tête de nègre, a particularly tasty and expensive kind of cep. Look for them near oak trees.”
  • “This here’s a chanterelle. If you spot two of them, follow the line that connects them; they always grow on a straight line.”

Picking technique

  • “Use a knife. Never ever pull mushrooms out of the ground. Cut them. If you damage their mycelium, they won’t grow again next year.”
  • “Remember: be gentle, cut them near the bottom of the stem in a straight line. Don’t break the hood.”
  • “Wait! Don’t cut the really small ones – they’ll be worth much more later on.”

I was soaking with sweat after a couple of hours of intense scouting. In a short timespan, Philippe managed to transform me into a die-hard mushroom hunter. A novice still, but I felt I was learning quickly. Philippe’s heuristics (not best practices, mind you) helped me discern the good from the bad, finding porcini hidden under leaves and cantharelles in a neat straight line. I even developed my own heuristics as I went along: I started looking alongside paths through the woods – plenty of chances for the sun to peep through the deck of leaves, and easier to spot since the vegetation is less dense.

Testing porcini

As I was wandering through the woods with eagle eyes and at a snail’s pace, it all felt strangely familiar. When Philippe said “Where there is one, there are many”, it struck my tester chord. Here I am, a tester, looking for mushrooms, which doesn’t seem to be all that different than looking for bugs. No wonder I liked it so much. I also realized that when I’m looking for bugs, I use these kind of heuristics all the time, but all too often I’m not very aware of them. Which is a pity, because used consciously, these heuristics (“a fallible method for solving a problem”) can be a really powerful tool to boost your exploratory testing efforts.

  • Start with a mission – make sure you – and your team – know what to look for, since our conception limits our perception. Michael Bolton often quotes Marshall McLuhan on this: “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it”
  • Make sure you’ve got your classification right. If you’re only interested in a specific kind of bug, maybe you shouldn’t waste time reporting others. You could consider parking them somewhere, or keeping the reporting rather lightweight by MIPping (mention in passing) them. But try to stick to your main focus for the session. And if you find a nice-looking bug, is it really? Scratch it, it might turn purple
  • Timing – as in mushroom picking – is also a factor to be considered in bug hunting. Are there typical times at which the application is less stable? When is an ideal testing time, really? Again, this is largely dependent on context
  • Location, location, location. Personally, I use many heuristics to guide me where to test. Which areas are more vulnerable? When you find one, there tend to be many others, indeed. As leaves bunching up *might* indicate a pushing mushroom, seemingly insignificant facts might be a tell-tale sign for bugs nearby: the code that developers write after a wild night of partying might not be all that good, for example. Or they can just have a bad day. I was once told by an old native American medicine man that developers are human too
  • As some mushrooms are picked and not cut, our bag-o-techniques should enable us to deal with any situation. As Lee Copeland points out in A Practitioner’s Guide to Software Test Design: a tester should carry his techniques with him at all times, just like a handyman’s toolbox follows him around everywhere he goes. Apply a specific technique, use an particular approach when the situation calls for it.

For the record: I’m not a mushroom master, yet. I lack practice, experience and domain knowledge to attain mastery. I’m not a testing master either, as I’m in constant learning mode. For every good practice I know, in context, I am aware that there’s always another context that I need to get myself familiar with. That prospect may seem humbling and daunting to many, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s Context-Driven Testing for ya.

(For more info, see The Seven Basic Principles of the Context-Driven School as a starting place. There’s a lot more where that came from).