12.03.2009

The Local Food Report: something rare and expensive

I might not be fully capable of this, but just for a second, let's forget about the wedding, okay? Let's fast forward through Paris and Florence and Panicale and Perugia and jump straight into a muddy truck with no seat belts going 80km an hour down a windy road that leads out of Montepulciano and into the little Tuscan foothills of the town. Alex is in the front, with a guy named Moreno Mencarelli, and I'm in the back sitting with my two cameras, an extra pack of film, my recording gear, and three caged dogs. For the next hour, Mencarelli has agreed to let us tag along. He and the dogs will be looking for truffles, white truffles, underground.

I don't know if you've ever had a truffle, but if you haven't, hooey are you in for a treat. You find their essence a lot in nice American restaurants—truffle salt and truffle oil and truffle butter and sometimes even truffle cheese—but very rarely do you see the real deal. That's because truffles come from Europe, France and Italy mostly, and cost in the neighborhood of $1000 a pound. Where we stayed in Italy, in a region that sort of straddled the Umbria/Tuscany border, there were truffles in just about every restaurant. Some places made truffle cheese, or truffle polenta, or truffles in scrambled eggs. If they were really brilliant, they did things simply—fresh pasta sauced with a little bit of butter and the pasta water with truffles shaved over top.

At any rate, even there, where truffles are a dime a dozen, they commanded a lot of respect. We saw signs posted at the edges of the woods all over the place, warning people that stealing truffles was a crime. And at nice restaurants, a plate of that pasta-white truffle combo I liked so much cost about a hundred bucks. Which is all to say that it was very nice of Signor Mencarelli to let us in on the adventure.


The woods he took us into he rents—sort of like renting farm land, except for this particular farm is one square kilometer of oaks and poplars with a muddy stream ravine running down the middle. White truffles like this sort of spot—old forests with plenty of water and shade to keep the moisture and temperature more constant. They grow off of the roots of the trees, or actually off of the root hairs, and people say that which tree they grow on influences their particular scent. It's hard to say what exactly they smell like, except that they have a musky, fierce kind of scent, the kind that is at the same time alluring and a little much. (Mencarelli gave us a small, cherry-sized truffle to keep, and when we made the mistake of leaving it in our hotel room, the smell was so completely overpowering, even in a jar, that we could hardly breathe until we took it out to the balcony and locked the door.) Apparently female pigs are very attracted to the smell, which is almost the same as the male pigs' come-and-get-me pheromone, which is why they are sometimes used as truffle hunters as well. The only snafu is that they like the smell so much that they tend to eat the truffles before anyone else can get one. Mencarelli's dogs do that sometimes, too—Luna ate three in the course of about twenty minutes while we were out—but they usually only do it with the very small ones, and most of the time, they're content to step aside for a snack of bread.

It was absolutely amazing to watch them sniff the truffles out. When Luna or Bottone or Cosco got on the scent, they started digging at a mile a minute. Luna and Cosco, both Lagotto Romagnolos, an ancient Italian breed of water dog, look like small poodles, and they seemed to be better at catching a more general whiff. Then Bottone, a Braco pointer who looked sort of Beagle-esque, would do the pinpointing, flinging dirt at Mencarelli while he tried to push him aside and start carefully extracting the prize with a long, thin, spade-like shovel. The whole thing was pretty hilarious, actually, with Mencarelli yelling at Luna for eating the truffles and Cosco falling down a steep bank into a mud puddle and Bottone looking at us all sideways when he wasn't quite sure where to go.


But the payoff—the payoff was amazing. After an hour of traipsing through the woods and sliding down banks and even trying to choke down a cigarette to prove our worth, we walked away with one perfect little piece of gold. We still haven't used it yet—we've been waiting for the right weather or the right pasta or maybe just the right reason to celebrate, but one night soon, I think it will be time. Apparently, we don't have much more before the smell tapers off and the flavor runs out. At any rate, I've been hunting around for recipes, trying not to blow our only chance, and just in case you ever come into possession of a white truffle yourself, I wanted to share.

For starters of course there's this, Lynne Rossetto Kasper's version of my favorite dish, but I think if we did it we'd want the pasta to be homemade. Also, she doesn't use any of the pasta cooking water in the sauce, which every Italian chef said was critical to the whole thing. There's also everything over here, and that first tagliatelle in particular. Or, swoon, there's this. If only, people, if only.

3 comments :

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful adventure! Were the dogs friendly, or were they too busy truffle sniffing to want a few pats on the head?

All I have to do now is get my mitts on a truffle or two, which may be a challenge here in midcoast Maine. We look forward to hearing more tales about what you ate on your honeymoon! ~A Maine Reader

Anonymous said...

PS from A Maine Reader: Do you have any truffle-buying advice for those of us here in the States? I'm guessing this is not something I can find at my local Hannaford. Do health-food stores carry them? Gourmet shops? What does one look for when selecting a good truffle?? Please advise!

Anonymous said...

Maine reader might try googling on truffle salt for a nice treat.

although not a customer of theirs, you might try this: http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/Articles/Exotic-Herbs-Spices-and-Salts-639/truffle-salt.aspx

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