Kitchen Accomplice: Tartufo, an Italian gem by any name

Outside the Galleria in Milan, Italy, just across from the Duomo, a man was standing by a basket of odd-shaped, bumpy tubers, labeled, Tartufo. The printing on his handmade sign was primitive, and the man himself looked very agrarianalmost impoverished. It turned out the prizes in his basket were the famed white Italian truffles. He probably had more lira (now Euros) in his bank account than I could ever dream ofat least if the price of these gems was any indication.

When I discovered this product, I did not hyperventilatebut I was on the verge. Wow! I was actually here and in the midst of a culinary paradise I had only read about.

Truffles in Italy are most often located by dogs accompanying trifolauthe professional truffle hunter. There are times of the year when truffles are most prevalent, and there are types of truffles that are more frequently sought-after. The adventuresome can arrange to go on a truffle hunt and experience the harvest up close and personal. Others can cruise the markets.

Even tiny bits of this morsel can cause costs of a product to soar. It reminds me of the Michigan morela genuine gold mine of an edible fungus if there ever was one. Think of the truffle in those terms and add the fervor of the Italian temperament to the mix. You will come very close to capturing what truffle fever is all about.

Truffles are occasionally offered for sale in the markets where I live. Unfortunately, they lose something as they are handled and as they age and travel. It is akin to the freshly picked, fingernail-size wild strawberries one gets in the south of France. The intensity of flavor that bursts forth on the tongue is not duplicated in berries in a carton transported cross-country. One must enjoy them at a certain time and place to experience them at their best. This is one of the thrills of travel.

For the prized white truffle, the Piedmont region of Italy is what you are seeking. Alba is its epicenter, and from fall to early spring, virtually every restaurant worth its weight has a truffle-centered offering on its menu. Take plenty of Euros.

Alba offers lots of options for taking home the truffle experience. Shops lining the main street carry not only truffle olive oil, but also truffle puree (necessary for truffle risotto), truffle mayonnaise, whole truffles, truffle pasta, and many other items. The wholesale truffle market is also open to the public during the annual truffle festival in October, when you can view award-winning truffles or buy directly from the wholesalers.

For the best selection of wines and grappas of the region to accompany your truffle purchases, head for Il Crutin, just off the main street near the Piazza Savona. And one final stop in Alba is the Sacco Pasticceria, which offers handmade chocolate truffles in both dark and light varieties. The chocolate truffles are flavored with the worlds finest hazelnuts, grown locally. Delicious hazelnut cakes made according to the local traditional recipe are also available. (Closer to home, the Dean & Delucawww.deandeluca.comspring catalog has many truffle-based offerings. You may wish to investigate these, particularly if you have just come into a substantial inheritance.)

There is not a bad meal to be had in this part of the world. There are so many fresh ingredients and so much pride among preparers that only the most jaundiced will not leave with lasting favorable memories.

Beans with Truffles

Ingredients:
2/3-pound shelled cannellini beans
salt
3 ounces truffles, scrubbed
1/2-cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2-pound pancetta
pepper

Directions:

Cook the beans for 5 minutes in a pot of boiling water, drain. Cover with cold water, add salt, return to gentle boil, and cook until nearly tender, about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, grate 2/3 of the truffles. Drain the beans, reserving half of the cooking water. Add the olive oil, grated truffles, pancetta, and pepper. Cook 10 minutes, or until tender. Slice the remaining truffles with a truffle slicer or mandolin. Serve the beans hot, garnished with the truffle slices.

Serves 4. (Rest assured, no one in the neighborhood but you will be feasting on this tonight!)

By John Kirkendall. Judge John Kirkendall is a retired Washtenaw County Probate judge. He presently serves on the Elder Law Advisory Board of the Stetson University College of Law. He has taught cooking classes for more than 25 years at various cooking schools in the Ann Arbor area and has himself attended classes at Cordon Bleu and La Varenne in Paris, as well as schools in New York, New Orleans and San Francisco. He is president of the National College of Probate Judges. He can be reached at judge-jink@yahoo.com.

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