Archive for the ‘Truffles’ Tag

Comment: Irish Times articles on Italian food in the north   Leave a comment

The following article appeared in the Irish Times 24 Dec 2010: the original can be found here in this excellent piece by Ken Doherty. SY

It is sometimes said that a good year for wine is a bad year for truffles. Something to do with a sufficient amount of rain satisfying the grape but sadly not enough to yield a crop of truffles. As we strolled around the pretty cobbled streets of Alba in northwest Italy – the go-to town for the truffle-nut – it looked like a bumper year for the musty fungal.

The town was overcome with truffle triumphalism. Every other shop window was festooned with the real thing or jokey simulacrums to excite the tourists. Having only tasted black truffles, and this being the truffle season, it was the pungency of its white relation that we were after. It started with a plan. The family, two adults and a baby, would, on a tour of the fertile north of Italy, make their way to the food and wine rich trinity of Gavi, Asti and Alba. Setting off from our base at a wonderful agriturismo (countryside BB), we would gobble as much of the region’s culinary specialities as we could.

As the bus rumbled its way up the narrow roads towards the village of Gavi in Piemonte, we sensed a treat in store. Gavi doesn’t just rely on its spectacular setting to woo you in. Its sumptuous vistas are a close second to its main draw. People make the pilgrimage to this tiny hamlet to experience its famous sweet and acidic white wines. We came for both.

Most of its wineries are just outside the town and, since we were car-free and baby-tied, we explored its medieval centre on foot. Its compact and charmingly dilapidated streets and buildings were quiet by late afternoon. On its main drag we stumbled into Antico Caffe Del Moro, pasticceria-bar-canteen-ice cream parlour and breast feeding refuge all rolled into one. We quickly fell prey to the proprietor’s big-hearted welcome and were given an introductory lesson to the intricacies of viniculture in Gavi.

After a quick feed from her mammy, all this nattering had a soporific effect on the baby. We were afforded a few tastings of what the Gavi vintage (from the Cortese grape) and its regional wines had to offer. This braced us for one of the many decent walks around the town.

Asti was different. It bristles with a more rugged atmosphere, especially during the twice weekly outdoor market days. Traders set up stall every Wednesday and Saturday in Campo del Palio but disappear by late afternoon. When we arrived at noon it was in full flow.

Amid all the cheaply-made threads and kitchen paraphernalia there is a wonderful food market that spoke of the season we were in. Stalls heaving with knobbly mushrooms, voluptuous squash and sultry plums made our bellies rumble.

The banter between stall holders and customers was imbued with typical Italian feeling – wildly gestating hands performing in the narrowest personal space possible. And for those who like to overturn historical myths and inaccuracies, the square is spiked with significance. Every September it hosts a bareback horse race similar to the famous Palio in Siena, Tuscany. But wait. In Asti, they claim their race is at least 300 years older!

Alba has the confident air of a regional capital. Situated in the rolling hills of the Langhe, it’s hemmed in by the vineyards that produce the famous Barolo, Barbera and Barbaresco wines. From the bus stop it’s only a short walk to the old town. We noticed that if your appetite wasn’t sated by wine and truffles, you could always undergo some retail therapy in its many expensive designer boutiques.

It was getting late and we were the ones who might need clinical gastronomic therapy if we didn’t see some truffle action soon. We skipped into Vincafe on Via Vittorio Emanuele and were not disappointed. The place was buzzing.

We started with some silky lardo (pure cured pork fat) that sweetly lined our stomachs for what was to come. I swear I could hear the drums roll as our truffle dishes made their way from the kitchen. Both dishes, baked eggs ( cocotte con tartufo bianco ) and pasta ( tagliarini con tartufo ) were decorated with wisps of white truffle. The price did make the eyes water but what the hell, I now understand why a lot of chefs choose it as a death row last meal.

Gavi, Asti and Alba are repositories of all that is good about Italy. Fantastic food, unforgettable scenery and a genuinely warm welcome. So make your way to this part of the peninsula, hardly undiscovered, but a region steeped in such significant culinary lore it can only be a gift that keeps on giving.

Posted January 19, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: Hunting truffles with Norcia   Leave a comment

The following passage comes from the work of the folklorist Charles Leland (obit 1903). Leland was sometimes rather too ready to find ancient Etruscan gods in Tuscan and Romagnan sprites: still he does record here a charming nineteenth-century truffle-hunting rhyme.

There is a Tuscan rural sprite of whom I could learn little, save that she is disposed to be troublesome. One of her specialities is to distract and disturb dogs when hunting for truffles. It may be that she has more dignified work at other times. Her name is Norcia, or Nortia. Nortia was of yore a very great Etruscan goddess – a Fortuna, according to Muller. Her temple was known to Roman antiquaries by the calendar nails driven in it. An inscription in hexameters from Volscinium begins with ‘Nortia te veneror lare cretus Volsiniensi’. But I find no truffles in all this, only the reflection that the peasantry everywhere bring down great gods to small uses. True, we have two goddesses of the same name in the same country, and that is something. Since writing the foregoing, I learn that when a truffle-hunter has no fortune in discovering the precious tartiifi, he addresses his dog thus:

O cane, cane chi da me siei tanto amato,

La fortuna tu mi ai levato,

Non trovandomi piu i tartufi,

Dunque cane, o mio bel cane,

A folletta di Norcia va ti à raccomodare

Che i tartufi ti faccia ritrovare,

E cosi io lo potro tanto ringraziare,

Che la fortuna mi voglia ridare!

Oh dog, my dog, so dear to me;

We’re out of luck I plainly see!

No truffles hast thou found today,

So then to Norcia go and pray;

For if her favour we implore,

She’ll grant us trufdes in such store.

Fortune will smile for evermore.

By an extraordinary coincidence truffles are also called nails, as their heads are round and small. And Norcia was identified with nails. ‘And, after all, it is altogether possible—or even probable—that this Norcia of the Truffles has nothing whatever to do with Nortia, but takes her name from the town of Norcia, or Norchia, famous for its pigs and its truffles.’ So a very learned friend suggests. However, all the principal Etruscan gods gave names to towns. Of which I find in Dennis’s Etruria that ‘Orioli suggests that the town of ‘Norchia’ may be identical with Nyrtia, mentioned by the ancient scholiast on Juvenal (x. 74) as a town, the birthplace of Sejanus, giving its name to, or deriving it from, the goddess Nortia, or Fortuna.’ As I said, this goddess was identified with nails, because in her temple at Vulsinii every year the priest drove a nail into the door, to serve as a kind of register. It may seem ridiculous to connect this with the slang name for mushrooms and truffles; but such similes are common among the people, and they never perish. It may be remarked here that Saint Antony is invoked when seeking truffles by peasants of a Roman Catholic turn of mind. But Norcia, as a goddess of the earth, may be supposed to know better where they are to be found; for she was unquestionably of the under-world, and a form of Persephone. Norcia is still very generally known in La Romagna, as peasants certified. Of one thing there can be no doubt – her specialty is to make ‘midnight mushrooms’.


Posted December 19, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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