I’m falling, falling, falling, twisting through the darkness, not knowing which way is up, not knowing how long I will fall or how long I have been falling. I am falling, falling, falling, corkscrewing through the inky blackness, unsure whether it is night or day, unaware whether it is hot or cold. I can feel nothing, see nothing, understand nothing. I simply go on, falling, unsure how I even know this, knowing not when or if it will end. It is dark, oh so completely dark. I can see nothing until I close my eyes and then I can see them, the smiling creatures, friendly yet menacing, heffalumps and woozles, Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band. I open my eyes so I cannot see them when, with a tremendous crash I hit the ground.
I hurt. The fall has knocked the wind out of me, from the very core of me, and I cannot remember how to breathe. My mind races for memories, clues to get my diaphragm to move, to get my lungs expand, but the jolt has shaken my head as well as my lungs. Like a sharp, heavy, muffled sound of bell struck by a mallet, the impact has reverberated through my head leaving it empty, limp and useless. I am in quicksand, unable to move my legs, my lungs, my mind. Am I dead?
I am not in quicksand, my limbs begin to stir and air begins to return to my lungs in short, shallow heaves. Light begins to unshroud the fog from my eyes, like bandages being unrolled from the head, but it is still nearly pitch black. I can faintly see into the inky darkness from which I fell and all that I can sense is a hazy, dark, blue black muck. It is cool and fresh against my bright pink skin and as the feeling begins to return to my limbs I can smell its freshness and a joy begins to find its way back into my soul that had seemed to be empty for an eternity as I was falling through that void. I slightly slide my belly through the muck and the cool tingle tells me to rub some more, so I bend my legs and turn from side to side, my belly covered in the soft mud, urging me on, and bend forward, dipping my neck in this cool, inviting filth, letting it cool my neck and run over my face. I roll over and wash my back and sides in it, its cool softness reviving me, reminding me that I am alive. And while my whole body and soul reconnect with the earth I can smell it. Not the freshness of the muck but a thin strand of that smell, that wafts through this void like a tiny filament, finding a passage to my very soul through my nose, whispering to my brain the way home, to the source of that smell.
Oh that smell. As the pace of my splashing in the coolness of this mud approaches a fury, I begin to feel that I am two, one of which is completely absorbed in this splashing and rolling, the other rising from and outside my body, drawn out by that haunting smell. I leave my splashing body behind and am drawn to the source smell. Where is it? I must find it.
But it is a kind tormentor. It leaves a simple trail right back to its source. At first it was a faint odor, but even then its direction was clear. I am stopped in my tracks and I can see the smell, see the swirly path in the air, that hugs the ground, a wispy, meaty, musty, heavenly trail that will lead me back to its source. I look back and there I am still, rolling and grunting, my eyes rolled back into my head and I notice that as I leave my other self behind to follow this attraction, my eyes are rolled back too. I can see the trail but my eyes cannot see. I simply know where I am going and I must go there. It draws me there and I am powerless to resist, even if I wanted to. But I don’t want to resist. I must be where it is and so I go on and on and on.
At last I am here. I know that I am here because the faint aroma has been growing stronger and now it tells me that it is here. I don’t know how I know, but I know. Right here at my feet, around this tree. I thrust myself into the soft, cool earth and start to dig. I must find it. I will find it. The aroma closing in around me, closing out the light, enveloping me in a warm dark blanket of dank, musty, nutty sweetness until I can see nothing and feel nothing. All is dark and I am falling.
* * *
Truffles. This mysterious and highly prized fungus with an intoxicating odor and haunting taste is one of the main reasons we have come on this trip, and a special prize that rewards visitors to Italy this time of year, which is the height of the white truffle season. During our trip we have already had a number of dishes that feature truffles, but that was just a prelude to the phase of our trip that is now beginning. Today we have departed Todi and followed the winding road north of Perugia, following our noses to the little known town of Citta di Castello, one of the principal truffle towns in Italy and home of Tartufi Bianconi, the Bianconi family business that is all things truffle - from hunting truffles, to brokering and buying from local trifalao (truffle hunters), to reselling and processing them into a vast variety of products, to maintaining a museum dedicated to the truffle and to running a cooking school that is our destination and will be our home for the next several hours. We leave the highway at Citta di Castello and Marky Mark guides us down narrow, single lane roads and through tiny, rustic villages that appear frozen in time announcing, incorrectly once again, that “you have arrived at your destination” when we are in the middle of desolate country road. Fortunately we have printed the directions that were provided by the agency through whom we have booked this half day class and although the directions are only slightly better than Marky Mark’s turn by turn variety, we find the unpaved road leading into the Bianconi’s farm, a tiny sign announcing Tartufi Bianconi.
We park our oversized car, big enough for a family of 6 (why is it that the rental car companies refuse to give you the small sporty car you requested, “upgrading” you instead to a gas guzzling behemoth that would be more at home in South Beach than rural Umbria?) on the gravel drive in front of the collection of neat buildings that make up the Bianconi’s home and business and are greeted by two women. One is a thin, middle aged woman with a gentle face, like a muse from a Botticelli painting, the other shorter and older, with a sparkle in her eye. These are our hosts for today, Gabriella Bianconi, who will guide us through the mysteries of the truffle, exploring the taste and aroma of the various varieties of these prized fungi, how they grow and where they are found, how they should be handled and how they can be used, and most importantly, how to cook with them and eat them, and her friend and associate, Lena Cedergren, a gregarious Swedish woman who has improbably taken up residence in Citta di Castello and who will translate and entertain us for the day. The two women greet us warmly and escort us into the building that houses the kitchen and dining room where they welcome us and begin to orient us as to what will transpire over the next several hours.
As soon as we enter the kitchen, which opens directly into the courtyard where we have parked, we know the day will be a good one. It has been built specifically for cooking classes and demonstrations, and is outfitted with equipment that is at once professional but with the feel of a home kitchen. It is a large space, with a high ceiling, plenty of room for circulation and preparation. Lena opens a bottle of Grechetto and immediately begins pouring wine for us (and herself). She and Gabriella alternate speaking to us and asking us questions as they show us to the nearby dining room and then next door to the family’s office and product showroom. It quickly becomes evident that Gabriella speaks excellent English, but Lena’s engaging personality and warmth adds not just correct grammar and the occasional correction of phrase, but a sense of humor and joie de vivre that puts immediately everyone at ease.
As we are being shown around, Saverio Bianconi, Gabriella’s husband, arrives in his truck with a white paper bag in hand. He has just been meeting with a local trifalao who has sold him a bag of freshly harvested truffles. We follow Saverio into a small room just outside the main product processing area, where a worker is busy preparing and bottling some sort of exotic truffle concoction for resale, and he places the bag on stainless steel table, a broad smile coming over his otherwise implacid face.
He opens the bag and spills out onto one of two striped towels, which are twisted into a sort of nest shape and already full of various varieties of truffles, the new truffles. The room already reeks of the perfume of these truffles, and it is then that we notice that every room we have been shown to has been suffused with more or less of the same musty sweet aroma. Saverio reaches down into the pile of and plucks forth his prize, an enormous white truffle, knobby and spattered with dirt, about the size of large tomato. He holds it up for us to breathe in and the effect is instant. We are transported to someplace, but someplace unknown, unknowable and unfindable. For a brief moment we are lost in that aroma, our senses ebbing and flowing like the soft but insistent splash of surf on the shore, coming, going, coming, going with each deep inhalation and cleansing exhale. This is why we have visited, to experience truffles more than simply enjoying them on a plate of pasta. For a moment and for this moment they are a religion.
This particular white truffle, a rather large specimen that most folk would assume came from the area around Alba in northwest Italy’s Piemonte region rather than from central Umbria which is better known for its black truffles, should fetch somewhere north of two thousand euros, according to Saverio. It is the largest truffle on the table and it is indeed an eyecatcher, which is why restaurants will pay such a high price for this type of truffle. But we go on to smell, touch, feel and consider the other, smaller white truffles in the cloth bag, each one prized equally by Saverio and each with its own distinct, but equally satisfying odor. Restaurants, it seems, simply pay more per gram for the larger truffles, because that is what diners like.
We move on to the other bag, stuffed with even more truffles, this bag holding a variety of different black truffles which are more plentiful in this area. The black truffles are generally smaller than their white brethren in the other bag, mostly the size of golf ball (or hailstones, depending upon your frame of reference), some reaching the size of ping pong balls. Some are smooth, others are bumpy, with dozens of little knobs, like a raspberry. Their odor, which like the aroma of the white truffle, is difficult to express in words, but it is clearly different from that of the white. In fact, as we are coming to appreciate already, each individual truffle is unique in its perfume and taste. There are hardly any rules, it seems, with truffles, and most of the little information that is out there is wrong.
We return to the kitchen where Gabriella begins teaching us about the various types of truffles. White and black are the two major classifications, but within each category there are different types, the white winter truffle, native to Alba and known as the tuber magnatum is the most costly and generally the most highly prized truffle in Italy. But there is also a spring white truffle (tuber borchi) which is more plentiful but less sought after. The blacks include the tuber melanosporum, known as the black truffle, the black prestige truffle or the black truffle of Norcia and also the Perigord truffle as it is the prized truffle of France (which does not produce white truffles), the more plentiful summer truffle and a number of lesser varieties. She shows us around a small room which the Bianconis have made into the world’s first and, they say, only museum of truffles, with cases displaying different types of truffles, dozens of books about truffles in different languages, charts showing the life cycle of the truffle and its relationship to its host tree on whom the truffle depends for its nutrients and a collection of the different tools used by trifalaos of different regions in Italy and France. This family is passionate about truffles.
Gabriella then begins about an hour taking us through a tasting of the various types of truffles, including fresh varieties as well as reconstituted dried truffles, frozen truffles, truffles in butter and oil, truffle paste. Some are eaten raw, others warmed slightly in olive oil with a hint of garlic. Each one ever so slightly different from the other, but all of them slightly quickening the pulse, slightly electrifying the air and the hairs on our bodies, without disturbing the calm. With so much about truffles difficult to describe or pinpoint, it is perhaps this feeling that best sums it up. Eating them and smelling them is at once calming and soothing yet also exciting and enervating.
For the next two hours Suzy and I work with Gabriella and Lena to prepare a number of fabulous dishes which we will proceed to eat and wash down with wine for another couple of hours after that. Each dish uses truffle in some manner – mashed potatoes with truffle and parmigiano, simply made by adding truffle infused potato flakes to boiling water; celery cream soup with croutons and shaved truffles; polenta cooled into timbales and topped with a truffle paste called tartufata; frascarelli, a peasant pasta that we make by hand by drizzling egg yolk into flour with a sort of whisk broom and which is topped with a crunchy celery and summer truffle sauce; and a simple boiled chicken cutlet roulade, stuffed with prosciutto, tartufata and truffle cheese. Each dish is better than the previous, each one haunting us with the essence of truffle, each one wringing out our souls, twisting one way at the top, the opposite direction below until we are both purified and intoxicated. After six hours immersing ourselves in truffles we are spent. The day has been an unmitigated success.
We find it hard to leave these wonderful people, who have spent the day revealing the secrets of the truffle to us. In these few hours we have grown close to them, exploring the possibility of doing business in the future or at least seeing them on a future trip to the region. But we must leave to begin the second phase of our trip, as we pass from Umbria and Tuscany in central Italy to Alba and the Piemonte in the north. More truffles await us there, including a truffle hunt and the annual white truffle festival. But for tonight we must brave the approaching rain and the impending darkness and make our way to Bologna, our destination for the night and tomorrow morning, memories of our day of truffles imprinted somewhere in our primitive dna.
Bill and Suzy