Tuesday, November 17, 2009
FIVE GUYS & ME - Alba, Italy TRUFFLES & FLOURISHES
I’ve been blogging a lot lately about the joys of white truffle oil drizzled on top of cheese spread on a slice of baguette, but that doesn’t compare to the tongue tantalizing joy you get from eating white truffles, an extraordinary culinary experience I had when my five guys and 'me' went to 'shoot' the truffle festival in Alba, Italy for the Food Network.
Unbeknownst to the rest of us (Jim and Jason in the crew van and Richard, Charlie and me in the Passatt), Barry, the show's exec. prod. and our driver had decided to take the long scenic route to Alba, our next stop after Nice. Or that is what he told us. With the van following closely behind us, we drove for hours in the mountains, but as beautiful as the drive was, the road's twists and turns made me a tad dizzy and anxious to get there or anywhere.
With only one, well maybe two (OK three) wrong turns, we didn’t arrive at our hotel in this medieval city until early evening.
We then had to quickly unload the car and equipment van as we were expected for a special meal at a little inn up yet another mountain road outside of Alba.
Finding that road was no problem. Finding the inn was something else altogether. The sun had set and there were no street lights as we climbed the steep mountain (welcome to rural Italy). Half-way up we could see the lights of a village as old as the Crusades and assumed that that was where the inn was located. Wrong. We drove around the town. No inn. Charlie (the associate producer) called the innkeeper and was told that we were in the wrong place. Duh! The inn was not in town but further up the mountain. Then Barry (the exec. producer), our car’s directionally challenged driver, saw a narrow street no wider than a one-way back alley in Anytown, USA. His “directionally challenged” determination led him to believe that this was our passage back to the mountain road. He steered our Passat down the street. The crew van followed. We drove about an eighth of a mile when the road narrowed even more and we knew the van wouldn’t make it through. We were at a figurative dead end with no room to turn around. It was so narrow, in fact, that Jim (the soundman) reached out the van window and touched one of the buildings that lined the street. Barry glibly told us that these driving challenges made arriving at our destination so rewarding. If I’d had half a bottle of Barolo in me, I would have laughed, but I didn’t, so I didn’t.
I kept my thoughts to myself as Charlie went out to the van to discuss how we were going to get out of this predicament. Well, it was a very short discussion because the only way out was to back out the very dark, narrow street and pray that no Smart car would make the dumb mistake of entering it before we escaped. Jason (the cameraman) was driving and miraculously and precariously and very slowly maneuvered the van out of that street and into the town square. “Directionally challenged” Barry also got the Passat into the square without a single scratch – though my silent prayers might have factored into it. Fortified with the latest set of directions, we left the town and continued to climb up the mountain. Within 15 minutes we arrived.
The inn was a rambling country house that overlooked the distant town of Alba and the little village below where we had nearly been stuck for the rest of eternity. A large, craggy oak tree gave the inn instant ‘curb appeal,’ as did the welcoming lamps shining in the windows. We were greeted with open arms by the mayor of the little village, some dignitaries from Alba and Mr. and Mrs. Innkeeper who led us to a large, round dining table. Because, as I mentioned, the guys were in Alba to cover the yearly truffle festival, the dinner was a feast flourished with truffles. We had a pasta course with white truffles (well, they're not actually white, but are described that way to differentiate between them and black truffles which are less expensive, but I digress) shaved on top, a fish course with shaved white truffles, a chicken course with shaved white truffles, a meat course with shaved white truffles as well as salads and vegetables and the region’s superstar wine – Barolo.
When the first course was served we all watched as “palate-challenged” Jason tentatively took his first bite of pasta. This was not a chocolate truffle. But he was becoming adventurous and he had liked the black truffle soup in Lyon. He chewed. He swallowed. He smiled. We laughed. Actually, none of us had ever had white truffles and didn’t know what to expect. We quickly learned that the white truffle flavor is not a subtle one, yet it doesn’t overwhelm a dish – it only enhances the other flavors. So even after a half dozen truffle-centric courses we never got tired of them.
The meal over, we made our way back to our hotel with no directional mishaps. Sated and happy, we fell asleep and dreamt not of sugar plum fairies, but fairies made of fluffy white, gnarly truffles… not the prettiest fairies, I grant you.
As was the case everywhere in Europe, our hotel laid out a huge buffet breakfast. So the next morning, fortified with eggs, meats, cheeses, cereals and cups and cups of caffeine, we piled into our vehicles and left for the Truffle Festival where chefs and restaurateurs from all over the world come to buy their truffles. Even Wolfgang Puck has been seen roaming the aisles.
Even before we entered the venue (a huge tent in the town square), the air was pungent with the aroma of truffles. Personally I love the smell...very musky, earthy, mushroom-y, times a thousand, but I gather a lot of people don’t. We were ushered into the tent by street dancers and accordion players (it WAS a festival, after all). Inside there were truffle vendors everywhere displaying their wares.
At $1,000 a pound, I was curious what they looked like. They’re not pretty… rather like gnarly, misshapen, humongous mushrooms.
During the lunch break we were invited to share in the vendors’ lunch which consisted of cheeses, proscuitto, and fried eggs with shaved white truffles. The mixture of running yolk and truffle scooped up on a piece of Italian bread: Bellisimo!
After the festival shoot, Charlie had arranged for another shoot: a genuine, certified truffle hunt with a genuine certified truffle hunter (“trifolau”) and his trusty truffle-sniffing dog.
In the old days, pigs were used to root out the morsels because they can better smell them (they grow underground at the foot of certain trees). But the truffle aroma is very much like that of a pig’s pheromones, so when the pig DID sniff out a truffle, it was difficult to keep the poor pig from going hog wild and scarfing the truffle down. Dogs, on the other hand, are not “enamored” of the truffle, so even though they aren’t as good at sniffing them out, they have no desire to eat them when they do. The dog has also been trained not to damage the truffle because the trifolau gets a much better price for “mint condition” truffles. Truffles are the diamonds of the food world, making hunting these pungent mushrooms a dangerous job for a dog. Rival trifolaus have kidnapped them for ransom and, sadly, have even hurt these dogs. But today our dog was in loving hands as we watched him sniff around. And, when he actually found a truffle and carefully dug it out, I thought he smiled with pride.
When that shoot was over, we all toured this medieval city with its family flags flying and imagined a world of colorful cavelieres and raven haired beauties dancing in the moonlight and feeding each other truffles under the stars.
Next on the shooting schedule: balsamic vinegar, our last shoot in Europe.
As we left the city and headed for the ancient town of Reggio Emilia in the Emilia Romana region, my five guys were whittled down to four. Barry needed to get back to the States for production office matters, leaving Charlie in the driver's seat. Richard moved into the navigator's spot and I had the back seat all to myself. Jason and Jim still followed behind as we headed off to find a vinegar so sweet and thick that the locals pour it onto their gelato.