On the Truffle Hunt

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The
early sun is just touching the far shore of Lake Maggiore,
lighting it up with a clear golden glow at odds with the chill breeze in the
air. A cold front has blustered its way
in over night, and though the sun is out it will be a leather jacket kind of
day.

This
last week has been amazing. Wish I’d
been doing a better job of documenting, but it’s that old dilemma – live life
or write about it? Usually I make way
for both by carving the time out of sleep but I’ve been fighting a head cold
this week and decided not to push it. I’m healthy now, but there’s a whole trip left to blog and we leave Italy tomorrow (Saturday.)

One
of the best parts of the trip was spending time with our friends R and E. I go way back with these guys. R and I were aiding and abetting each other
in all kinds of teenage shenanigans back when Simon and Garfunkel were laying
themselves down like a bridge over troubled water and Don McLean drove the Chevy
to the levy. Way, way back. Good times.

Part
of the trip included two much newer (and younger) friends who have a wonderful
restaurant in Bloomington  (Restaurant Tallent.) I’ve written about
Dave’s cooking before in this blog. He’s also
one of the mainstays of Slow Food Bloomington.

The
six of us decided to play hooky from the Salone and Terra Madre for a couple of
days and take to the hills of Piemonte. Because
we don’t speak the language and don’t know enough to fake it, I decided to find
someone to show us around.  Before we left home I hit the internet and discovered
La Dolce Vita Wine Tours.

I
cannot say enough good things about this company, run by Italian Claudio Bisio
and his American journalist wife Patricia Thomson. Claudio himself was our guide and he was a
gem – knowledgeable and funny and smart, mixing availability and
unobtrusiveness in exactly the right measure. He also did his homework to a degree that astonished me. When I overrode his restaurant
recommendations to pick a place on my own he obligingly booked it for us, then
ate there himself so he could be sure I wasn’t making a mistake. (I wasn’t, as it turns out, but I easily
could have been judging by my picks in Torino.)

Claudio
and his assistant Esther met us on an early Saturday in Asti where we had taken the train to avoid the unbelievable clog of morning traffic
in Torino.  The  fog was just burning off the hills as we drove the short distance to
Alba, where Claudio set us loose with a map.

No
doubt about where we were headed. A
market crowded the streets of the small town with stalls of boots and jeans,
and vegetables, fish, and cheese, but our goal was more specialized – the Mercato
di Tartufo Bianco, the famed white truffle market.

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I
had been there four years ago when it was a pretty basic affair. Big showy banner draped across the road, but
the market itself was mostly a white tent with tables set up, displaying the
stinky lumps and knobs that are the highly prized tartufo bianco. I guess food tourism has come light years
since then. For one thing, we had to pay
a one Euro admission fee to get in, and then we traversed a long corridor of
cheese and salami vendors, offering us tastes of products that, no matter how
wonderful (and some of them were), were not truffles. What was up with this?

But
at the end of the corridor and around a sharp corner, there they were, vendor
after vendor displaying their oh-so-precious wares. The smell hits you first, and then you see
them, in all their warty glory. Not just
truffles, but oils, butters, creams, preserved cheeses and fresh raviolis. Truffle heaven.

We
decided we could not be there and not buy one, although at the time we had no clue
what we would do with it, You can’t
exactly eat a truffle out of hand like an apple, and even though we had an ace
chef with us, he had no kitchen. Still
the smell was enticing us to open our wallets. Each of the three couples ponied up 40 Euros and we went on the hunt.

Vendors
lured us, holding out likely specimens for us to smell. We sniffed and looked and sniffed again,
checking out each other’s faces. Did any
of us have a clue what we were looking for? They all smelled great. Sniff,
look, sniff. Somehow, we knew when we
had found it.

Beauty
in truffles is perhaps like the beauty of a homely child to its loving mother,
but I don’t think so. Ours really was
much more lovely than the rest. We
forked over a handful of bills and it was ours.

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What
did we do with it? That’s a tale of its
own. But in the meantime, there were
wineries to visit and an amazing dinner to be eaten at the end of the
day. More on that when we get to Amsterdam on Saturday, en route to
home.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. I’m bummed we couldn’t meet up in Turin but I can’t WAIT to hear what y’all did with your truffle!

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  2. jared says:

    Your Italy posts are getting us all hot and bothered – we’re headed over to Tuscany in July and this winter is already dragging out. Right now reading your Italy posts is a bit like looking under the Christmas tree the week before Santa comes.

    Like

  3. Charmaine says:

    Sounds and looks lovely. Glad you’re having such an adventure!

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  4. Christine says:

    I am bummed too, Lisa. Next time!
    Jared, you should really think about putting Piemonte on your itinerary. Pretty amazing place (though I am certain Tuscany will not disappoint!)
    Thanks, Charmaine!

    Like

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