Truffles for the Common Man

white truffleOk we admit it – we’re truffleholics. Ever since we spent time visiting the Truffle Museum in San Giovanni d’ Asso (25 miles southeast of Siena) and gorging ourselves on pappardelle with shaved truffles we can’t seem to get enough. Even if we only can get a taste of the essense in an oil or a sliver in a honey or cheese we will pursue it with a passion.

Italian truffles are an example of a singular ingredient that can be used to transform a dish into a gastronomic wonder. If you shy away from them, don’t. There are more reasons to like them then not and despite the recent negativity from naysayers that truffle oil is only infused olive oil with the chemical odorant in real truffles (who ever thought you could extract an oil from a truffle, anyway?), the extraordinary scent is still coveted by chefs and gastronomes. Fresh truffles are a rare and expensive
treat. Outside of Italy and other indigenous places of origin sensible to enjoy only on a special occasion. Even in Italy, the home of some of the world’s best  truffles, Italians look upon them with reverence, do not take them for granted and will travel to enjoy them in season.

So for those of us who cannot grab our dog and dig in the most secret places among the roots of forested Italian oak, hazel, poplar and beech or spend a small fortune on truffles served at a Michelin starred restaurant we consider ourselves fortunate to be able to savor the flavor of truffles in a more common way. There are some very good and authentic truffle oils, butters, salts, cheeses and honeys available online and in specialty food shops. Trader Joe’s makes a cheese with black truffles from central Umbria that will stand in for our favored truffled pecorino. We use it to make a recipe from Norcia called Salsicce Farcite – meaning stuffed sausage. You can do these on the grill or in the oven for a easy yet sophisticated dish that will have your friends and family wondering at what Italian cooking school you’ve been studying.

truffle sausages

Salsicce Farcite

  • 4 sweet Italian sausages, casings removed.
  • ¼ pound truffled cheese.
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the skinless sausages on a roasting pan and bake in the preheated oven 10 minutes, or until almost cooked.
  • Cool 5 minutes. Using a paring knife, make a long slit down the middle of each sausage (but be careful not to cut all the way through-you still want the sausages to hold together). Stuff the slits with the cheese and return the sausages to the oven. Bake another 10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the sausages are cooked all the way through.
  • Serve hot, with crusty bread and a green salad tossed with olive oil. Serves 4.

The Pageantry of the Palio

palio flagMario Batali once said that “nothing can prepare you for the breathtaking beauty of the main piazza in Siena, nothing”. That is assuredly so and yet on August 16th  Siena’s shell-shaped concave piazza (Piazza del Campo) becomes even more  breathtaking with the pageantry of il Palio, the most unique and colorful horse race in history. The piazza’s sunburst pattern of nine strips of travertine (in memory of the Government of the Nine, who ruled over the city from 1292 to 1355) are the stage for  a 4 day festival of pomp, circumstance and neighborhood pride that culminates in a 90 second bareback horse race at breakneck speed around the central piazza. The winning horse and or rider (horses have been known to cross the finish line scosso -riderless) are awarded a painted silk cloth/banner (il palio). The oldest still existing palio dates back to 1719 and can be seen at the museum of the Aquila neighborhood, one of Siena’s 17 districts (contrade) that participate in the race.

Siena’s contrade are singular in their efforts, strategizing all year on how to paliodistinguish their neighborhood as the winner of Italy’s most famous horse race. A horse race that is more an allegorical contest with rites and rituals that date back to the middle ages when then as now the winning contrada proudly display the prized palio bannerpalio as a symbol of their competitive spirit and local power. 

Each contrade is defined district with its own identity and regional rivalries. Each has its own regional government, church, patron saint and representative animal as an emblem of community loyalty. A giraffe, snail, dragon, porcupine, she-wolf, eagle, caterpillar, owl, panther and a goose are some of the animals colorfully displayed on standards and horses as drummers, flag bearers and thousands of people gather in Siena’s Piazza del Campo to participate in the pageantry of il Palio.