Monday, October 24, 2011

Lions and Truffles and Lambs, Oh My!

My high school roommate’s father used to be fond of telling me (and presumably others) a certain joke.  He would start by asking, “William . . . have I ever told you the story of the lion and the lamb?”  Having heard the story on numerous occasions I would invariably reply, “why yes, Mr. Burton.  You have.”  “Good.  Let me tell it to you.”

The story goes like this.

A man is visiting the zoo when he comes upon the lion’s exhibit.  Across the fence he spies the king of the jungle, a regal cat sitting upright with his eyes half closed.  But surprisingly, lying on the ground only a few yards away is a small white lamb.  The two look at each other and then away, each seemingly oblivious to the other’s obviously incongruent presence together.  The man is transfixed, staring at this most unusual scene.

A few minutes later a young man, the assistant zookeeper comes by and notices the man staring at the cage.  “You enjoying yourself, mister?” he asks.

“I am completely amazed,” he replies.  “This is just like that biblical prophesy, you know.  The one that says ‘and one day the lion shall lie down with the lamb and peace shall reign on the earth.’  It is amazing.  Completely overwhelming.  How do you do it?”

“It’s simple,” replies the zookeeper.  “We put in a fresh lamb every couple of hours.”

*                      *                      *

I mention this story because today I thought I would recount yesterday’s experience with truffles.  I have written about truffles many times in the past.  Extensively.  Eating them.  Smelling them.  Hunting for them.  Being rained out hunting for them.  Cooking with them.  Dreaming about them.  I draw my inspiration, however, from the late Mr. Burton.  “Why yes, Mr. Menard, you have told me before about truffles.

Good.  Let me tell it to you.

*                      *                      *

Truffles are fungi that live underground, usually near the roots of trees in woody areas.  They are not the little round chocolate candies.  They are not the round chocolate coated ice cream balls.

Truffles defy written description.  They are essentially an ugly, dirt covered fungus with a peculiar taste and an overwhelming odor.  Many are offput and even sickened by that odor.  But for some, one whiff literally lifts one off one’s feet and makes one float on air.  I count myself among that group.

Truffles are, for the most part, exceedingly expensive.  This is because they are rare and difficult to find.  You need a dog or a pig to sniff them out and you need to be in an area that truffles find conducive to growing.  There are not many such areas.  One of them happens to be in central Italy where our villa is.  Such is a lucky coincidence of life.

*                      *                      *

Suzy and I luckily came across Gabriella and Saverio Bianconi several years ago.  Finding them was intentional.  We wanted to learn more about truffles and to go truffle hunting and so our research led us to this couple who live about an hour north of the villa just outside of the lovely and interesting town of Citta di Castello.  But we were lucky to find Gabriella and Saverio because they are Gabriella and Saverio.  The day we first met them we learned what we had sought to learn about truffles.  But more importantly we developed a friendship with the Bianconis.

*                      *                                  *

So precisely at 9:47 we closed the doors to our soccer mom mini van and began the hour long drive to Citerna, a lovely medieval town built high on a hill just beyond Citta di Castello where our day with the Bianconis was about to begin.  A moment after we arrived in town Saverio drove up, apologizing for his lateness, despite the fact that both of us had arrived, uncharacteristically for here in Italy, early.  Worrisomely, however, he complained about the weather, telling us that the extremely dry past months had affected the quantity and quality of truffles in the area, and that it was very difficult to find them this season.  This came as a shock to Suzy and me, as our previous truffle hunt experience with Saverio and his truffaio, or truffle hunter, had been laughingly easy.  So easy and plentiful, in fact, that it seemed that perhaps truffle merchants like Saverio might be playing with the market in order to keep prices high.  This was the first time we had heard him complain about the availability of truffles.

As we reassembled our group for the drive to Saverio’s private truffle reserve, a gated slice of forest near the cemetery outside of Citerna’s walls, I was nervous that our group might be the first we had taken on a truffle hunt that would find no truffles.  My fears were amplified when Saverio told me that Gianfranco and his trusty truffle sniffing dog, Asia, would not be joining us as in the past, due to the advanced age of one of them.  I think he was referring to Asia.

A few moments later Saverio’s brother Vincenzo arrived with his dog, a timid cowering whelp who seemed to be afraid of our group.  Vincenzo was certainly dressed for the part – camouflage pants an olive tee shirt and a knit cap.  And within minutes his dog, Emma, shed her inhibitions and began her quivering search for underground gold.

Within 15 seconds Emma had discovered her first truffle of the day, digging it out of a couple of inches of soft, damp dark earth.  Vincenzo barked at Emma to stop, so she wouldn’t eat the truffle, took the precious tuber from the ground and slipped Emma a small treat, the first of dozens she would receive over the next 45 minutes or so.

On and on it went.  Emma glided around trees and between bushes, five points of contact on the ground – four legs and a nose – steadily covering the preserve in long arcs.  She seemed to be less following something than she was being pulled along, as if she was the pointer on a truffle-inspired Ouija board with some spirits directing her to spots where she would stop, start to dig and then fall prostrate when commanded by Vincenzo.  For three quarters of an hour we followed behind her, finding spot after spot where aromatic fungi, whose presence she could smell beneath the ground, lay.  Then we would take the special shovel, essentially a long handled trowel with one of those specialized Italian names that defies memorization, and pry up the earth around the truffle.  It would invariably be passed around and sniffed, eyes would roll, for this is the natural and unavoidable reaction to smelling a truffle, and it would be placed in the antique leather shoulder bag that is the trademark of a truffle hunter.

Whether Saverio had told us the story of the bad weather and poor truffle yield in order to lower expectations, or whether we just had a good day, within in hour we were again strolling the main street of lovely Citerna, our leather shoulder bag filled with more than a dozen truffles.  The locals could smell our group coming down the main street in Citerna and for some reason their eyes rolled.

*                      *                      *

But capturing the elusive fungus is only the first step in its procession to your gullet.  They must then be cleaned and, importantly, understood, before being enjoyed and consumed.  That phase of the life cycle of the truffle is the job of Gabriella Bianconi.

We have visited Gabriella’s house and her kitchen numerous times in the past.  Every time we return and with every group we bring, there is the joy of new discovery.  Gabriella is a sage when it comes to truffles.

The Bianconi’s house contains their beautiful home and welcoming kitchen.  But also, next door inside their compound, it contains a modern production plant, a small scale one indeed, where their truffles are cleaned and turned into a line of delicious truffle products – preserved whole truffles, truffle butter, truffle sauce, pastas and rices infused with truffles, truffled potatoes, truffle honey – and packaged for sale in Italy and, of course in a certain shop in Bethesda, Maryland.   It is a small scale mom and pop business that is literally run by mom and pop.  And it is on that scale and that small, intimate scale only that truffles can be productized.  They are too precious and too rare to be mass produced.  Each jar, bag or package is a product of Gabriella’s kitchen and is better for that fact.

*                      *                      *

For the next several hours our group crowded around Gabriella, hanging on her every word as she described the white truffle of Alba and how it differed from the black truffle of Norcia, floating slightly above the ground as they sampled each and tried to internalize those differences.  They listened to her talk about how this truffle can be frozen, that one can and should be lightly sautéed in olive oil to release its flavor and how that one is an excellent accompaniment with chicken.  They sampled tartufata, truffle spread and truffle honey on local pecorino cheese.  And after all of this, they sat down at the Bianconi’s table for lunch.

Only in Italy do you take a cooking class or get a cooking demonstration and then sit down for a meal.  But it is what we did, experiencing course after course of dishes highlighting and showcasing truffles, but even more showcasing Gabriella’s talents in the kitchen.  But the end of our afternoon showcased more than just the food, as it often does here in Italy.  It showcased the warmth and kindness of our hosts, Gabriella and Saverio Bianconi, the truffle merchants of Citta di Castello and the couple who opened our hearts, minds and nasal passages to the wonders of the truffle. 

And as we have found so often with Italians, the passion they exhibit in one area of life is not confined to or by the commercial sphere, it is a passion for all of what life has to offer.  Which is why we said our goodbyes to Saverio not at his home, but at the entrance to the Burri Museum, our final stop of the day to experience the art of local Citta di Castello artist Alberto Burri.  Not wanting us to miss Burri, Saverio escorted us to the museum and dropped us at the front door.

*                      *                      *

Yesterday’s visit to the Bianconi’s was perhaps the dozenth trip we have made to Citta di Castello to experience truffles Bianconi style.  But if Mr. Burton taught me anything (and he did) it is that a good story is more than worth repeating.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy

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