Digging for Umbria’s Black Gold: Truffles
Our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is talking about harvest this month! Take a look at posts by Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, Gloria, and Michelle Fabio. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.
There are some firsts you never forget. Your first kiss (Bubba, fifth grade) and your first heartbreak (same kid). Your first hiring (Gino’s Italian Deli) and your first firing (same job). Your first drive (1982 Dodge Colt) and your first accident (same car). And, in my case, the first time I ever tasted truffles (June, 1986).
I was a high school exchange student staying with a marvelous family in Assisi and during my first week there my “host sister” told me, “Mamma has prepared something special for lunch!” We all sat down at the table, where steaming plates of perfectly cooked spaghetti dressed with just a few drops of golden-green Umbrian olive oil waited. I watched as the family’s mother reverently pulled out what looked to my midwestern American eyes like a clump of dirt and began to grate it over each individual dish. I started to panic. (I had just recovered the previous day from the shock upon hearing that Umbrians regularly ate mice. Only after much elaborate gesticulating and explaining did I realize that what I had understood from the heavily accented English to be the small rodent was actually the word “maize”. Much to my relief.)
I could see no way of diplomatically refusing to eat the soil-covered pasta, and while all eyes around the table were fixed on me, I took my first bite. It was an epiphany.
Nothing can describe the penetrating, earthy (no, it’s not dirt, but its flavor suggests loamy woods and wild mushrooms and crisp autumn days and burning leaves all rolled into one) taste of the world’s most precious tuber. Grated over pasta, mixed in sauces and patès, simply wrapped overnight in a soft towel along with fresh farm eggs for a truffle-infused frittata the next day…these divine delicacies–the Romans believed that truffles were the fruit of the sacred thunderbolt of Jove—are one of the staples of Umbrian cuisine.
Their ubiquitous presence on menus across this central Italian region belies the fact that they are not that easy to come by. They require a precise microclimate at medium-high altitudes, calcareous soil, stony and rich in clay, sunny yet damp spots near oaks, hornbeams, hazelnuts and holm oaks.
They also require a nose—a good nose. These elusive fungi usually grow covered by leaf litter or under the forest floor and eyes aren’t good enough to roust them out. You need the nose of a dog, and I don’t mean in the figurative sense: a real truffle dog. Dogs are trained as pups to sniff out truffles (pigs were once used, but had the bad habit of eating what they found) and used by professional and amateur truffle hunters across the region to locate their woodland treasures. After years of passively eating truffles, I was ready to switch to the active side of the equation and participate in a truffle hunt myself. I bought a rangefinder from https://outdoorempire.com/best-rangefinder-reviews-advice/, so I could see how far away something was.
When pondering truffles in Umbria, the town of Norcia in the far southeast corner of the region, bordering on The Marches, inevitably comes to mind. Truffles are to Norcia what bicycles are to Beijing and sin is to Vegas, so much so that the common name of the dark Tuber Melanosporum Vitt is Norcia Nero or Norcia’s Black Gold and the town holds an important truffle fair and festival every year in late February. But to participate in an actual hunt, I crossed to the opposite corner of the region and ended up on the upper northwest border with Tuscany among the picturesque wooded rolling hills of the Upper Tiber Valley.
I met up with the delightful couple, Saverio and Gabriella Bianconi, of Tartufi Bianconi located in the small town of Città di Castello. In the truffle business since 1990, for the past decade the Bianconis have opened their doors to travellers and gourmands from all over the world to share their love of the local history, culture, and cuisine—all of which are closely intertwined with this delicacy. I immediately headed out with the affable Saverio, whose knowledge of the Upper Tiber Valley was exhaustive and enthusiasm infective, to a nearby truffle reserve where we met up with two local foragers and their professional canine colleagues: Asia and Sandy.
The dogs were literally trembling with excitement as I got kitted out with my “bisaccia”, or traditional leather truffle bag, and headed into the woods. As soon as they were let free and given the command, they began zigzagging through undergrowth, nose to ground, sniffing for buried treasure. Not three minutes had passed when Asia began circling a spot, and delicately pawing her way through the dried leaf cover and damp humus underneath. Score! A pair of lovely black truffles, about as big as walnuts, were about two inches underground, and I was as proud of her hunting prowess as if she had been by my own. Less than an hour later, with a warm thank you and goodbye to our two “tartufai” truffle hunters and their dogs, I set off with Saverio to his home and business to have our booty weighed and sorted.
Once at Tartufi Bianconi, I discovered Saverio’s tiny private truffle museum–floor to ceiling packed with charming and quirky truffle hunting tools, memorabilia, and an educational display with various samples of local and foreign tuber varieties and curiosities. His lighthearted explanation included wily tricks local foragers use to sell their finds at the highest price (including packing the truffles’ warty skin with pebbles and dirt to make them heavier, thus more valuable, and passing off truffle-shaped stones as the real thing) and to keep the best foraging areas a secret (one local “tartufaio” regularly goes out in drag, so he won’t be recognized and followed to the woods by competitors). Afterwards, I had a peek in their processing rooms, where they weigh, sort, clean and prepare the truffles—drying, deep freezing, or chopping them for patè, sauces, and infused olive oil.
Saverio’s wife, Gabriella, then welcomed me into her homey kitchen and led me through a tasting of the four main truffle varieties found locally: the delicate white truffle (I was there just as the white truffle season opened, and was lucky to be able to sample this rare treat fresh from the woods) sliced paper thin and served raw with lightly salted butter, the stronger summer white truffle, or Bianchetto, which was stored minced and frozen and now served with just a drop of olive oil, the local black truffle (Gabriella had me first taste it raw, then gently warmed in olive oil to demonstrate how this brings out the aroma), and the strong Norcia black truffle, again warmed in olive oil to accentuate the flavor. After 25 years of enjoying truffles, I felt I had finally discovered how to distinguish between them and use each variety to its best advantage—knowledge I will be using to my best advantage at future dinner parties!
We finished our day in the best possible way: cooking and eating our bounty. With Gabriella as instructor, and using all local ingredients and products prepared by the Bianconis, we prepared a pecorino flan with honey and truffles, egg tagliatelle dressed in fresh truffle, a juicy beef roast with truffle sauce, and finished with a wonderful traditional dessert–zuppa inglese–made with custard and sponge cake. We chatted, laughed, and swapped stories from the first bite of antipasto through the last sip of smoky-sweet vin santo made by a micro-vintner down the road. In this day of discoveries, the biggest one was this: truffles are not about food, but about people. The history of people who have foraged for them for millenia, the culture of people who keep this history alive, the passion of people who pass down this culture in the kitchen, the stories of people who are passionate about this breathtaking valley and its bounty.
A special thank you to Saverio and Gabriella from Tartufi Bianconi for a wonderful day!
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