Tuesday, October 27, 2009

adventures in truffle hunting

I've heard it said that golf is a good walk wasted.  That may be true, but truffle hunting is a great walk, enhanced.
Silvano and Marcello (our guide) 
I have said in a previous blog that I only discovered truffles as an adult. Before that I didn't know they existed, or that they were a precious commodity.  
Now I know both.  
And I think I know why.
Truffle hunting is a business.  Most hunters wouldn't allow anyone, let alone someone with a video camera along. The risk of another hunter discovering where truffles are hidden is great.  This is not a hobby, it is a livelihood, and I came to respect that as we took our wonderful and bit strenuous 3 hour walk through the woods. Due to this, I have chosen not to post the video of our adventure. Sorry. 

Silvano and his sons gather from the land what they can.  They hunt truffle, collect chestnuts and forage for porcini mushrooms. All of these things are available locally, essentially in their back yard.  Silvano has been a truffle hunter for 35+ years.  Every day, during the season, for 5 hours, he takes a walk with his dogs.  He directs them to areas that have been successful in the past, and he watches them closely.  An enthusiastic dog might swallow a truffle, if his master doesn't get there quickly enough.
Truffles are very expensive.  Fancy restaurants think nothing of charging $100 for a pasta starter with shaved truffle. A white truffle can cost you upwards of about $6000 a pound. So imagine my surprise, when we arrived at Silvano's home after our morning of truffle mania, to see a jar loaded with the stuff. 
 I turned to my sister and said, "am I dead?"

The smell of the ground, where a truffle lay, is intoxicating.  It smells like a symphony of heaven and earth. I just couldn't believe my nose when one of the dogs unearthed one.  As I approached the scene, I could smell the truffle...as clear as day.  It was astounding.
After our beautiful walk in the woods, and our unearthing of 2 small truffle bits...we headed to Silvano's house for afternoon supper.

Our walk in the woods
sporti hanging out

What a beautiful place.  Can you imagine anything more beautiful?  Well, I can.  And it wasn't nature, it was nurture.  When we arrived at Silvano's house most of his family were there to greet us. He has 3 sons and two of them joined us for lunch, along with the most charming Beatrice--Silvano's granddaughter.  She was off school because of a strike.  Silvano's wife had been preparing all morning for our arrival.  The dining table was set with care and the kitchen was brimming with activity.  Everything Margherita put on the table was made either in her house, or in a house nearby.  She makes her own bread and her own pasta, by hand.

No machines.  There are chickens in the back for eggs.

Andrea, Silvano's son and Beatrice's father makes the family salami.  He gave us a great explanation on how-to and inspired us, for the time being. When reality set in...that we don't have a cantina or basement or any cool dark place to cure and dry it, we began to think of great places to buy salami.  So, one of the specialities of Bologna is the ragu bolognese.  I presented a recipe here.  Margherita served it with tagliatelle and truffles. She put a bit of fresh truffle in the sauce as it was near the end of cooking, and then Andrea shaved additional portions as it was served.  MY OH MY!
 And because everyone follows up pasta with potatoes...I know it is one of my favorite combinations.  We followed with a gratin of potatoes with truffle cooked in and more shaved truffle on top
What Margherita was trying to do was show us how to use the precious truffle.  When I told her that we have truffle ice cream, cookies, cheese, oil, honey, macaroni and cheese, etc, etc...it was if I was telling her that we par-boil kittens.  In this house, and in much of what I could ascertain in the region, truffles are meant to be eaten with only a few items.  Items that can stand up to the depth of the truffle, but will also allow the truffle to shine.  Putting it in macaroni and cheese is like taking a gold nugget and dipping it in silver.  I was schooled.  But I can't promise I will mend my ways completely.  I can honestly say I won't be making truffle ice cream or cookies, but I did make killer truffle potato chips the other night....

Andrea's handmade salami
the family gathered around the table
After a long lunch, with lots of laughter and stories being told, we were ready for dessert.  Again, Margherita came through with some delicious homemade delights.
She made a cookie called zuccherini.  My mom has been describing a cookie my grandma made when my mom was a little girl.  She had never been able to duplicate the taste or texture of that cookie.  Today, my mother was whisked back to her small kitchen in the Bronx.  The cookies were exactly as she remembered.  She was delighted when Margherita packed a bag of them for us to take back to our hotel with us!
This family was lovely.  They love food and they live life to the fullest.  They welcomed us into their home as if we were relatives. At one point in the afternoon, I just sat back and watched and listened. And I too was brought back to my childhood.  It felt as if it were Sunday afternoon on my Aunt Rose's summer porch.  The men and women breaking bread and celebrating life.  A memory brought back and revived.


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