Aka, my second post of this trip devoted to funghi.
We hadn’t planned to go to Europe at all on this trip, primarily due to the expense. But after Africa and Egypt (which yes is technically on the African continent but is hard to actually call Africa), we wanted to go somewhere we didn’t feel compelled to see grand sights or wildlife because we were sighted and wildlife’d out, truth be told. The one place in Europe I had thought maybe we’d visit on this trip was Rome, because Peter is an aficionado of Roman history but, inexplicably, had never been to Rome. We looked into what was going on in Italy in November, and realized it was the off season for tourists but also the olive harvest and white truffle season. Sold! I found three truffle festivals that looked pretty awesome and we bought our flight tickets, planned to attend a few of the festivals, maybe help with the olive harvest, and just enjoy Italy for Italy and la dolce vita.
We landed in Rome but immediately got on a train to Florence to get us closer to the truffles. We’d save Rome and its sights for after our recuperation period. I knew we had made the right decision when I spotted a big plate of porcini mushrooms in the windows of a few Florentine restaurants. This was all great, but the big thing we were not prepared for was the temperature. Not anticipating needing them again, we had shipped most of our cold weather clothes home from Australia. Which meant we were freezing because the temp was in the low 30s and after Africa, we were not at all acclimated. But the truffles were worth it so we bought sweaters and stuck it out. For those unfamiliar with the Italian white truffle, here is a link to a Time magazine article about them.
We arrived in Florence, just in time for the opening weekend of the the San Miniato White Truffle Festival. San Miniato, a short train ride from Florence, is a really cute Tuscan hill town that we’d never heard of. I’ll sum it up this way: for festivals devoted to food and/or wine, just leave it to the Italians. It was so much fun. Samples of amazing food were being handed out generously and gregariously. Truffle infused roasted wild boar, anyone? How about truffle infused cheese? Freshly made cannoli? Glass of wine for a buck that you can carry around the street? It was all there, and more. All the Italians were taking the samples without any apparent guilt about not buying the product, so we tried our best to follow suit. We couldn’t leave without some purchases, though, the food was just too delicious. Then there were the truffles themselves, which are on display in cases with prices. We didn’t buy any because we didn’t have a way to fix them properly, but it was fun enough to see and smell them. Here are some photos from the festival, and the post continues below:
The San Miniato festival was so fun that we decided we had to go to the mother of all white truffle festivals, the world famous one held in Alba, the following weekend. Food snobs will tell you that the white truffles from Alba have no equal. We wouldn’t know since we hadn’t actually tried the white truffle of Tuscany, but I figured if I was going to try an Italian white truffle, it should be one from Alba.
Before heading up there, we had a week to spend somewhere. Peter found a rental car for $5/day (!), so we drove off into the Tuscan countryside. We stayed at a fabulous Airbnb outside another little hill town called Colle di Valle d’Elsa, where the hosts treated us like family. They had us up to their huge farmhouse, which was surrounded by their olive trees, where three generations of their family lived. They had us up one evening for espresso, wine made from their own grapes, and a liqueur from Sorrento we’d never had. Then on our last night they had us up for dinner, which was a four course meal made by Marcella, the matriarch, which included buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto di parma, pasta with homemade ragu sauce, recently pressed extra virgin olive oil from their own olives, and of course their wine and more of the Sorrento liqueur. We had actually already eaten a pizza for dinner, but couldn’t pass this up so stuffed ourselves sick. I’ve never in my life seen olive oil that was Kermit the Frog green, but this was! Only one member of the family spoke decent English, but this 15-year old was game to play translator and we could understand more Italian than we thought, thanks to the Spanish we learned in South America, so it was a really fun evening. This was exactly what we needed after Africa.
From Tuscany we drove to Piedmont, where Alba is located and where arguably the best Italian grapes are grown and wine made. We loved the food and wine, but we were surprised at the landscape. If you take away the medieval structures and the grapes, it looks (and feels) an awful lot like Minnesota/Wisconsin in November. The barren fields reminded Peter of hunting season growing up in Wisconsin. Thanksgiving was only a few days away, and we found ourselves feeling really lonely for the first time on this trip. Here we were in a place that surprisingly felt like home but wasn’t home and we didn’t know a soul, so it made sense. I really think it was ultimately the weather, though. We got over it in a few days, and a few calls made back home helped!
We visited small towns that make famous wine, like Barolo and Barbaresco, and continued to eat very well. Then the weekend was upon us, so we drove over to Alba. Alba is a bigger small town than San Miniato, but still quite nice. However, the feel of the festival was completely different. It was pretty serious and a bit snooty. There were a few samples being handed out around the town, but for the bulk of the samples you had to pay to get into this big truffle hall where the truffles were displayed and the experts were on hand to weigh and certify that you were buying the real thing. There were wines sold by the glass for far more than a dollar. It was something to see, but we would recommend San Miniato over Alba any day for the pure fun of it. I also did not try any white truffles because all the food was expensive, and then if you wanted a shaving of white truffle on your pasta or eggs, you had to fork over another $50. I just couldn’t do it. So we each found some cheap but fresh tagliatelle with a shaving of black truffles for about $8. It was certainly good enough. Also, if it’s true that nothing compares to an Alba white truffle, we made the right choice to skip it this year because we later learned that it had been a bad/dry white truffle season so they had imported white truffles from Turkey to have enough for the festival. Hmm…
Here are some photos from Alba, and the post continues below:
In the three weeks we were in Italy, we did more than attend truffle festivals, but this is a post dedicated to truffles, and the only tourist sights we took in were in Rome, where Peter finally got to see and experience the birthplace of his favorite empire. Other than that, we enjoyed bumming around Italy without many tourists and suffice it to say we ate extremely well. Black truffles and porcini mushrooms were on menus across northern Italy, so I was very happy. We drank local wines from the regions we traveled through, including Tuscany, Piedmont and Veneto. We stayed in an old Abbey outside of the city of Parma, where we ate lots of its local cheese and ham, the famous parmigiano cheese and prosciutto di Parma, some of which literally melted in our mouths. Just incredible, I can still taste and feel it in my mouth.
After our November truffle escapades, we went to Morocco for a few weeks, which will be the subject of the next posts, where we met our friends Andy and Jodi who are starting their own long trip. After Morocco, we came back to Italy in time for all four of us to celebrate Christmas Eve at the Vatican. We stayed in Italy for another three weeks, and had one more unexpected, fantastic truffle experience.
We were exploring a region of Italy none of us had been to before, the Le Marche region. We ended up booking a few nights at an agriturismo, which is a working farm that offers room and board. We hadn’t stayed at an agriturismo before, and sometimes dream of moving to Italy and opening one ourselves, so thought we should stay at one for the experience. We pulled up in the dark and it looked like a very nice place, nothing like the working farms we’d been to at home. How could a farmer afford this? We walked in the door and I saw a photo on the wall of a man with two dogs and what appeared to be a big basket full of white truffles. Huh? Then after depositing our bags in our rooms I went back to the foyer and saw they had a well worn copy of Funghi magazine there, which had a photo on the cover of a man who resembled the man in the photo on the wall. Double huh? And finally, there was a book that looked like something you can get online by sending in your own photos and commentary, entitled “Truffle Hunting in Italy in 2016,” with photos of the same truffle man with some non-Italians, and the man who checked us in. Where in the world are we staying?!? That was it, I had to get to the bottom of this. Magazine in hand, I excitedly sought out the man who checked us in and started in with my questions. Turns out he’s a second generation truffle hunter. His father, the man in the photos, is apparently a famous truffle hunter in Italy. He had bought the land surrounding the agriturismo decades ago because he recognized it was full of silver poplar trees, which have a symbiotic relationship with the best kind of white truffles that grow in Italy. We talked truffles for a while, and he admitted he didn’t really know anything about mushrooms but said none of the “famous ones” grew close by, you needed to get to higher elevations to find porcini and the like. He never hunted them, only truffles. Sensing my excitement at this fabulous situation I’d miraculously found myself in, he went to get his plastic tub that contained his remaining white truffles for me to see and smell. Heavenly! Then, it got even better: He invited me to go out truffle hunting with him day after next. He said the truffle season is over, but they go out once a week or so just to check. He didn’t expect to find anything, and really downplayed our chances, but did I want to go along? Are you kidding?!? Authentic white truffle hunting in Italy, and for free?!? (I had looked into it a bit in November and from what I saw, truffle hunters would take tourists out for a hefty fee where they walked around a while and then found a planted truffle at the end, because no truffle hunter is going to take someone to their real spots — I had no interest in that). To say the least, I couldn’t wait.
The truffle hunting day dawned and while Peter and Andy stayed behind, Jodi and I donned our sturdiest shoes (thankfully I still had my hiking boots and rain pants) and followed him and his famous truffle hunter father out to get their truffle dogs — which they breed and train as well — and proceeded down the muddy track to get to the truffle grounds. The dogs found one almost immediately, and we had our first white truffle. They found five more, including one truly big one. It was so fun and interesting, we had a great time and learned a lot. Apparently during the “season” either he or his father is with the dogs in the truffle area all day every day. At night, two big dogs guard that part of their property. I can understand why: he ended up selling the truffles we found for about $800 USD, which was less than he expected, but wow. After putting the dogs away, he took us on a tour of the rest of the farm where he is cultivating black and summer truffles successfully (the white truffles cannot be cultivated), raising his own pigs and curing his own meats in the cave system they have dug out, and growing a few vegetables in the garden. I wanted to move in permanently. Finally, that night we tasted his white truffle with softly scrambled eggs that his wife prepared at the agriturismo. It was more delicately flavored than I expected, but perfect in every other way. La dolce vita, indeed.