Truffle Times

white truffle
Some have described the aroma and flavor of the Italian truffle as rich and intense with a taste of honey and garlic reminiscent of the earthy woods in which it is found. Others have described them as a misshapen knot with an aroma best left in the leafy understory of the woods. Each to his own but I would suggest that you give truffles a try. Italians eat them raw, shaved over egg dishes or plain pastas, infused in olive oil or honey, in risotto and soft polenta (I had them over braised pigeon on my last trip).
A few years ago I stayed in the village of San Giovanni d’Asso, in the heart of  the Crete Senesi, where I was able to get up close and personal with the legendary white truffle. S.G. d’Asso is the home of the Museo di Tartufo, Italys first museum dedicated to the truffle. The museum created by a pharmacist, a chef and a botanist is located in a 13th century castle. But this is only one of the many wonderful things about the town, the other is a the town itself and a remarkable locanda (country inn) called Locanda del Castello where Selvana, her son Massimo create the most pleasant soggiorno for you to enjoy truffles, termes and Tuscany plus other activities from wine and cheese tastings to horseback riding and cycling.
Many cities and towns in Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria celebrate the white truffle with food festivals and markets during October and November. The town of Alba in Piemonte is the classic big box tourist destination for white truffles in Italy but the towns of Savigno, NW of Bologna (1-2-3 Sunday in November), San Giovanni d’Asso south of Siena (2-3 weekend in November) and Citta’ di Castello in Umbria (1st weekend in November) all have regional truffle festivals.
A good introduction to the taste of the Italian truffle is by way of a honey available at CosituttiMarketPlace . This luxurious millefiori honey has a precious sliver of Italian truffle in every jar. A balance of earthiness and sweetness. Here you can also find some recipes for using this honey in the most extraordinary ways.
Some interesting facts about truffles 
  • The aroma and flavors of truffles was thought to be so intoxicating that the Church in the Middle Ages regarded the seductive appeal of truffles as dangerous and they were banned from Medieval kitchens.
  • Rossini, the famous Italian composer, admitted that he had wept only 3 times in his life, “Once when my first opera failed, once again when I heard Paganini play the violin and once when the truffled turkey fell overboard at a boating picnic”.
  • A tartufaio, truffle hunter, accompanied by his trained dog will search early in the morning for truffles when the air is clear and favorable for the dog to smell out the truffle.
  • The most sought after white truffles are found only in select geological pockets in central and northwest Italy, Croatia and Slovenia, and the yield each autumn cannot keep up.
  • The amount of truffle oil required for most recipes costs 25 to 50 cents, a small price to pay for an aroma and flavor that is so unique and irresistible.
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An Oenophilic Uffizi

What would you curate at an Italian oenophilic museum? I’m sure your choices would be varied and different than mine.The wines listed are from our personal tasting experiences eating and drinking at the tables of our Italian family and friends and at trattorie, restaurants, wine bars, vineyards and farms throughout Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria.

 

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Tuscany in a glass. Sangiovese wine produced in or around the town of Montepulciano. Evidence suggests it dates as far back as the Etruscan period, several centuries BC. Not to be confused with Montelpulciano di Abruzzo. A good general rule of thumb to avoid this confusion is if you see Montepulciano at the end of a wine name, it’s the place. In the beginning, it’s the grape.

Brunello di Montalcino

One Italy’s most famous and prestigious wines. Made exclusively from Sangiovese grapes grown on the slopes around the Tuscan hill town of Montalcino. Our tasting at Tenuta Vitanza was wonderful.

Barbera

The third most planted grape in Italy, popular because of its low tannins and high acidity making it a perfect pairing for tomato sauced pasta.

Nebbiolo

The grape grows in the foggy mist of the Langhe region of Piedmonte (nebbia is the Italian word for fog) used in the making of two of the classic bold wines of Italy, Barolo and Barberesco, the king and queen of Italian wines.

Chianti Classico

The iconic Chianti Classico. The oldest and most genuine expression of the wines in the Chianti region. Follow the Trail of the Black Rooster (Gallo Nero) for memorable tastings in Tuscany.

Chianti Colle Senesi

From the crete senesi the hills surrounding Siena in the southern part of the Chianti region. A masterful landscape that affords a slightly lighter, less expensive taste of rustic Tuscany.

Albana di Romagna

From Emilia Romagna a rich, sweet passito wine made from partly dried grapes. I first had this wine after dinner at Trattoria La Romantica in Ferrara for an out-of-body wine experience.

Vin Santo

Wine of the Saints. Grapes are held in baskets then strung together on cane stands where they are dried for several months in a large ventilated room (vinsantaie) then fermented and matured for over 4 years in caratelli (small chestnut barrels). Recommended – Vin Santo di Carmignano (Prato) from Capezzana. Vin Santo from Avignonesi in Montepulciano including Occhio di Pernice (the Eye of the Partridge).

Teroldego

We first tasted this wine in March 07 on a trip to the Trentino Alto Adige region of Northern Italy. After many trips to Italy, my Italian cousins decided that it was about time for me to venture into the Sudtirol. They wanted me to see the Dolomites, visit the Ice Man, eat some Italian/German food and taste Tyrolean Gold . The urban legend surrounding the wine says that its name is the German dialect for gold of Tirol.Grown primarily in the northeastern region of Trentino-Alto Adige.

Sagrantino

The main red grape of Umbria used to make the most excellent DOCG Sagrantino di Montefalco; “la dolce vita” squared (to the highest degree); high regard for the wine of this grape begins with an afternoon spent in a wine bar in Umbria with my friends, Luca and Luigi over a bottle of Montefalco Sagrantino

Brachetto d’Aqui

I first tasted this wine at an afternoon reception in the Milanese apartment of my friends Laura and Luccio and I have loved it ever since. The color of rose petals, it has been described as soft and creamy with hints of wild strawberries and raspberries. Brachetto d’Aqui is from the Piedmonte region of Northern Italy in an area known for its effervescence. Asti Spumanti comes from this region.

Dolcetto

Another Piedmontese grape; dark, purple skinned; the everyday wine of the region.

Prosecco

From the vineyards of Valdobbiadene, north of Venice, the Colli Trevigiani and Brenta Canal.One of the most memorable glass of Prosecco was part of an afternoon meal I had with my Italian cousins in a restaurant along the Brenta Canal in a town called Mira. We had a spectacular feast of scampi giganti alla griglia (giant grilled shrimp) and other assorted fresh seafood. Our cousin Roberto suggested we begin our meal with a glass of Prosecco which we did. His suggestion was perfect.

The Wines of Carmignano

Tuscan wine is more than Chianti. So I traveled outside the belt way, NW of Florence to Tenuta di Capezzana near Carmignano outside of Prato. Here I spent a wonderful afternoon experiencing the warm hospitality of the Contini Bonacossi family at the table in the dining room of their villa eating a Tuscan meal fit for a Medici and tasting their signature wines. In 1716, Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici issued an edict identifying the region as producing one of the highest quality wines.

The Wines from the Hills of Piacenza

The wines from the hills of Piacenza have been appreciated by popes and kings and those who would be including Napoleon and Michelangelo. Colli Piacentini Mont’Arquato Duca di Ferro Gutturnio Riserva is made from two of my cousin Roberto’s favorite grapes, Barbera (70%) and Bonarda (30%). It has a brilliant ruby red color with shades of purple red and an aroma of dried cherries and spice. Paired with the illustrious pecorino formaggi of Piacenza.

Malvasia

The vine was introduced to the area by Venetian merchants who brought cuttings from Greece; my favorite is the sweet Arquatum-Passito di Malvasia that I have had at the Leon D’Oro Castell’Arquato Hotel de Charme Ristorante Don Ferdinando in Castell’Arquato with my friend Rita.

Practical Magic -An Italian Liqueur for Halloween

strega bottlePortions and spells are on my mind as Halloween approaches and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the spirit of the season than with a glass of Strega, a bewitching liqueur from Italy. This potent potion was created in 1860 by Guiseppe Alberti and like most spirits, there are a number of stories behind its origins. Alberti was from the town of Benevento, once invaded and occupied by barbarians who left a legacy of magical witchcraft that caused Benevento to be known as “la città delle streghe” the city of witches. Depending on who you believe Alberti received the secret recipe from either witches or local monks and developed a natural digestivo made from 70 intoxicating herbs including cinnamon from Ceylon, Florentine iris, Italian Apennine juniper, Samnite mint, fennel, anise and honey tinged saffron.

The spell binding mythology behind Strega was co-opted by a 1940’s ad campaign designed to link Liquore Strega with romantic liaisons and the advertising motto “once you drink Strega together you will never drink it apart.” In this way Strega has become part of yet another legend that couples who drink it together will remain united in love forever.

Today Alberti S.p.A. Strega is used in a wide variety of specialty products and as a unique ingredient in craft cocktails, candies and confections including the aromatic and intoxicating Milk Pan di Campobassostrega cake

A  domed cake prepared with “liqueur milk”, a mixture of milk, Strega liqueur, sugar, saffron, vanilla and lemon peel  gives the cake its typical taste and yellow color, a practical application of distillate magic.

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 Paradiso Fig

In the distant past it was a common belief that East of Asia Eden could be found. Countless merchant ships relentlessly searched for a place, a compass point, a tangible position on a map where Paradise lost could be rediscovered. The biblical location of Eden may have pointed to the East but the gastronomic location of the garden of earthly delights most certainly was to the West. If Eden had a taste it would be Italy.

figsAnd one of the heavenly fruits in the garden would most certainly have been the Paradiso Fig. The name Paradiso comes from a story about an old man in Italy that sat under his fig tree every morning eating figs and bread for breakfast. People passing would ask him if he was alright and his reply was, “This is my Paradise” Paradiso.

The juicy fig with the green skin and full bodied reddish pulp originates in the town of Genoa, in Northern Italy. It is not the only fig variety grown in Italy. The Tarantella, Tuscan White Triana and the San Pietro grown near the island of Sardegna are also wildly popular with Italians who use them to make cookies (cucidati), jams and preserves and as a filling for tarts. Figs pair well with walnuts, honey and cheeses, particularly gorgonzola dolce, and soft varieties like goat cheese and mascarpone. Prosciutto Wrapped Stuffed Summer Figs, as a topping for pizza bianca, bruschetta or focaccia, dried, preserved or fresh – all are delectable. The heavenly hosts must have lobbied the Lord to include the fig tree in the Garden of Eden. figs and cookies cucidati

For those of you who want to bring Italy home, the Paradiso as well as other Italian varietals can be gown in an outdoor container and brought indoors or sheltered during cooler weather. The trees are beautiful and the foliage is deep-lobed. Eating a ripened fig from the tree is satisfying and sweet like a taste of paradise.

Caring for the Chianina

chianina standingThe white cattle (Vacca Chianina -kya-NEE-na) of the Val di Chiana may be one of the oldest breeds of cattle. They were used as models for Roman sculptures. I have  seen them grazing in pastures outside the town of Citta’ di Castello in Umbria and the hillsides of Tuscany near Abazzia San’Antimo.

They are very impressive for their stature (over 6 feet tall) and light pale color. The young animals can weigh up to 1540 pounds and provide the large cuts of meat needed for the legendary bistecca alla fiorentina. 

Italy’s bistecca may be one of the truest interpretations of wood-grilled meats and the rustic cuisine of the region. The notoriety of the Florentine steak dates back to the 1200’s, when the appetites of  English merchants visiting Florence were whetted by the meat being cooked in the town squares. Anointed with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt and coarsely ground pepper and grilled rare, it is a rite of passage for the taste traveler in Italy and should not be missed.bistecca Fondly referred to as the Tuscan T-bone, a bistecca fiorentina will be cut 1-3 inches thick (3 fingers wide) so when grilled a nice crust forms on the outside of the steak while the inside remains succulently rare or as they say in Italy sanguinoso. The meat is then thinly sliced, tagliata style, and as the steak is large (over 2 lbs.) and costly, meant to be shared.

chianina pastureThe strength, size and prized meat of the Vacca Chianina had me wondering how they are raised and cared for. As I mentioned I have seen the porcelain white cattle grazing in the fields of Italy and their visual presence is astonishing. Formerly a draught breed their growth rate can exceed 4 lbs. a day. So how are Italy’s animal version of Japan’s Sumo wrestlers nurtured and cared for to produce such memorable meat?  Meat that is was so valued that the Etruscans sacrificed the Chianina’s ancestors to their gods and the Romans immortalized the breed in monumental sculptures. Like much of what Italians eat and drink the explanation for the goodness and flavor of the Chianina relates to local history and culture. With generational producers and a pastured landscape that allows the cattle to graze and create the great muscles needed to produce this quality of meat. The philosophies that hold true to the Italian way of valuing the food they eat are translated into the way they raise and source their food. For no country is more perfectly constructed for the enjoyment of food than Italy.

The Bridge at Bassano

BassanoAfter we left Padua my cousin Lidia and her husband Roberto wanted to drive to the town of Bassano del Grappa at the foot of the Italian Alps. Bassano del Grappa is 27 miles north of Padua, north of Vicenza. Described as an “authentic Italian river town”, Bassano del Grappa has a spirit and history that is both touching and unique. The historical center (centro storico), with its cobblestone streets, is split in half by the Brenta River and a covered wooden bridge designed by Palladio. The views of the town from the bridge are postcard perfect with wine bars and grappa shops on either side. The Nardini grapperia and the Poli Grappa Museum on Via Gamba are a must for grappa afficiandos and interesting stops for those who would like to learn more about Italy’s most famous distillate.

Bassano’s grappa is what Roberto wanted us to taste but the bridge at Bassano is what Lidia wanted us to see. In 1569 Palladio was commissioned by the citizens of Bassano to design and replace the town bridge, destroyed by the flooding of the river Brenta. Palladio designs a stone bridge with three arches, inspired by the buildings of ancient Rome.

Marasco WWlThere is a heritage of heroism from both World Wars associated with the bridge at Bassano and the piviotal role of the bridge in the military history of the region is long standing. Our grandfather crossed this bridge during WWI as a young interpreter with the Italian Army.  alpini During WWII Italian resistance soldiers organized raids on the German army from the craggy slopes of nearby Monte Grappa. You can still see the machine gun bullet holes on the buildings next to the bridge. The bridge was destroyed by the retreating German army at the end of WWII and rebuilt in 1948 by the Alpini, Italy’s elite mountain military corps, and named Ponte degli Alpini (Bridge of the Alpini) as a memorial to their fallen comrades in arms.

Although Bassano is only about an hour’s drive  from Venice many travelers have yet to discover this quaint medieval town with a unique and touching heritage that holds a special place in our family’s history.