Chapter One - The Truffle Market in Alba, Italy
The heady aroma of white truffles filled the air in the cavernous marketplace. The sales floor was enclosed in a large makeshift tent which seemed to trap and accentuat the fragrance, but more likely it was simply the soulful scent of tartufo bianco, the little tuber memorialized in poems and culinary prayers around the world, that scented the air. The mouth-watering smell of this delectable condiment could send chefs into paroxysms of rapture, and cause diners to outspend their budgets.
“One thousand euros for half a kilo?” The man with the stubby beard behind the counter cast a cold glance at his customer. The merchant was tending a small collection of chalky knobs, clumps unearthed just hours earlier, fungi whose unremarkable appearance disguised the truffles’ starring role in modern cuisine.
“E’ ridicolo!” he exclaimed. “I wouldn’t sell a half kilo of my truffles for less than two thousand euros!”
His neighbor, also tending a counter with dusty tartufi displayed like prized jewels in a glass case, chimed in.
“Si,” he said with a belly laugh. He considered the visitor, someone obviously not from Italy, and certainly not from Piedmont, where everyone knows the value of fine truffles. “These little gems are worth more than you know, but I can shave some off of this little one for that thousand euros you seem anxious to spend.”
The customer, properly chastised and spotted as an amateur among experts, blushed slightly, but he pointed to one of the smallest knobs in the second dealer’s showcase.
“What does that weigh?” he asked uncomfortably.
The trifolào, or truffle hunter, hoisted the gnarly nugget between his thumb and forefinger, eyed it closely, then lowered it reverently onto a scale set along the side of the counter.
“About point-three kilo,” he proclaimed, with his right hand facing down, fingers spread and waving back and forth. “Maybe nine hundred euros. You want?”
The startled customer was clearly taken aback. He had chosen the smallest truffle in the case and still couldn’t imagine paying such a large sum for it. He had tasted the tartufo bianco before at restaurants and was admittedly smitten by it, and he wanted to take some back to the U.S. to treat his friends. But he couldn’t bring himself to spend $1,000 for something so small.
“Why is it so expensive, when I can have it in restaurants without feeling like I’m spending too much money.”
The two trifolài smiled at one another, but tried to explain to their new guest.
“Do you see those judges up there?” the second man asked, pointing to the raised dais where several men and women sat.
“Yes, I do,” answered the visitor, hesitantly.
“They are judges. They make sure that everything sold in this market is truly, and clearly, the white truffle of Piedmont, the most prized culinary treasure in all the world, tuber magnatum. The restaurants, well, they may slip in some truffles from other regions, or even some of the Perigord truffles from across the border.” He couldn’t bring himself to say France, the source of black truffles, thought by most chefs as good, but not up to the quality of Italy’s white truffle.
“And besides,” added the first merchant, “the restaurant only shaves a tiny portion onto your plate, once, twice with a shaver, so there’s not so much to have.”
His counterpart was quick to add that truffles are so pungent that only a little is used in any case.
“In fact, even this tiny nugget of truffle here,” he declared as he raised the one from the scale, “is actually enough to serve four or five people, for several meals. On pasta, risotto, omelette…capisce?”
The visitor was impressed, but he couldn’t part with 900 euros, no matter how much he liked his friends. He bade the merchants goodbye and meandered away, breathing deeply of the breath-taking aromas before sheepishly exiting the market altogether.
Chapter Two - A Precious Gem
Nestled in the hills of the Piedmont, Alba is an ancient city with centuries of tradition. It is not a fortified city, like many of those towns in Tuscany where the Florentines and the Sienese were constantly at war. No, Alba has the charm of a cozy village-city without the international flair of those Renaissance capitals.
The people of Alba know their place, they know that tourists with their millions of dollars wouldn’t make a detour to their pleasant little hamlet, but the Albese know something else and take great pride in it.
The greatest and most expensive Italian wines come from the hills that surround Alba. There is Barolo – called the King of Wines, and Barbaresco – the Prince of Wines. But these merely set the standard for the brilliance of Piedmontese viticulture. There are so many red wines made from the same nebbiolo grape, including Gattinara, Spanna, and Sizzano. Add to the list the great white wines of the Piedmont, like Arneis, Cortese, and a scattering of Pinot Grigio, and this tiny village of Alba could easily be crowned the seat of Italian wine royalty.
Of course, fabulous wine is always accompanied by equally fabulous food, and the Albese have also developed their own niche for food. Combining the seafood and olives from Liguria just to the south, the chefs in Piedmont added unique forms of pasta, beef, fresh produce, seafood from neighboring Liguria, and precious herbs to highlight the natural flavors of it all. From elegant restaurant dining rooms to pleasant home kitchens, the food of this region always delivered memorable meals.
And the Albese had one other thing that they were immensely proud of: truffles and the annual Truffle Festival that opened in late-September and carried on through the winter months until the harvest of the famed tuber magnatum had run its course.
Each year, crowds filled the streets of Alba in the days and weeks leading up to the festival. They were mostly European tourists - - for some reason the Americans hadn’t truly embraced this culinary treasure yet. With its focus on truffles and the endless dishes that could be improved by including this ingredient, the festival was first and foremost a culinary event. But at the opening ceremonies, the Albese put on a Medieval show with costumed actors performing scenes from the Middle Ages, including grand parades, starving peasants, mock battles, even fake hangings. And there was the Palio degli Asini, or famed donkey race, fought with ferocity but a heavy dose of humor to determine which borgo, or neighborhood would reign for the year as the champions of the Festa del Tartufo. After the race, the Medieval actors and winners of the Palio marched through the city streets like a scene out of the 17th century, singing the praises of their heroic donkey and his intrepid rider.
The Albese knew they occupied a favored seat in Italy’s wine, food, and cultural history. And they relished it.
Chapter Three - Working the Vineyard in Sinalunga
Three hundred miles away, in a dusty field in Tuscany, Paolo straightened up and arched his back, then leaned on the rake he had been scraping across the hardened earth at his feet. He took off his weather-beaten Washington Nationals baseball cap, stained from sweat and dusty from . work, and fanned the muggy air to stir even a bit of breeze on his face.
It was mid-September, usually a time of some relief in the vineyard since the harvest was mostly completed, and Paolo was helping his father, Dito, clean the rows of vines to prepare them for their winter sleep. The pickers had moved on to other vineyard rows, and Dito had already arranged contracts to sell their grapes to surrounding wineries; that left father and son alone in the stillness of the vineyard to put everything in order for the period of hibernation that came with the chill winds of autumn.
Vineyards were places of magic in brightly colored wine brochures and travel posters, but the dell’Uco family knew them as places of work. Agriculture of any stripe could be hard, back-breaking work, an occupation that shared its destiny with the vagaries of the weather, and Paolo had grown into this family enterprise but still resisted letting it grow in his heart.
Dito had more years on him and more seasons in the vineyard. He had worked the fields for most of his adult life and, although the effort sometimes showed on his face, he never regretted it. His fruit would be bottled by other families who owned the wineries and Dito knew that these grapes would make fine wine.
Paolo yanked the hat back in place to shield his face from the sun and coughed a bit of dust from his throat. He was young and strong and he didn’t intend to turn gray-haired and worn in this vineyard. The dell’Ucos would go on, but he had bigger thoughts, bigger dreams than filling the fermentation vats of the families who put their name on the bottles of wine.
Dito kept his head bent toward the ground and just kept raking the discarded grapes and random twigs and broken branches in the furrow between the rows of vines. Paolo looked at his father with a slight dose of pity, and he was immediately embarrassed by the emotion. Still, he wondered why his father would want to spend his years growing someone else’s wine.
He studied his father’s stocky figure, a body that seemed well designed for farm work. His legs and arms were short but muscled, his strong neck was darkened by years of working outside, and the lines on his face were like the rivulets of time, chronicling the mixture of good times and bad, but most of all they served as a badge of honor for a man who had never let up in the relentless labor of farming.
Paolo wished his father would make the wine that his fruit would yield in someone else’s fattoria, an inelegant Italian word for “farm” that was commonly used to refer to wineries across this storied land.
“I’m a farmer, not a winemaker,” Dito always reminded him. Sometimes the declaration was made with chin held high, proud of his connection to the earth, but sometimes Dito’s gaze dropped ever so slightly, the glitter of pride in his eyes a bit more subdued, enough that Paolo detected a note of sadness in his father’s voice. Winemaking in Sinalunga, and the entire region of Tuscany around it, was a noble calling, an industry that is both science and art, and one that preserved a tradition of excellence that Italy promoted around the world. But in their little world between the vines here in Sinalunga, not far from Siena, Paolo sensed that winemaking was out of their reach. The vineyard provided a steady income, but not the riches that would be required to build a winery and establish a winemaking enterprise.
“It doesn’t matter, anyway,” Paolo mumbled to himself. “I won’t be here for long. I don’t want to be here for long.”
Dito was now the one to stand and stretch his sore back, stealing a glance in the direction of his son and only child. They exchanged a brief look, but Paolo shied away from the glance so that his father would not see him standing idle, as he bent back over the rake and returned to the dusty business at hand.
Paolo passed his time dreaming about his plans. He began his campaign with his mother almost a month earlier, suggesting in an off-hand way that he might want to go to America. There are things to do there, he said, “Maybe I’ll discover what I want to be in life.” Paolo was twenty-three years old, old enough to dream of a future different from the path his parents chose, yet young enough to let dreams override common sense.
At least that’s how his mother, Catrina, put it the first time he raised the idea.
“America is a wonderful place,” she said, never looking up from the laundry she was folding, “or so we’re told. But we have no family there and your father needs you. What would you do in America until this great day when you ‘discover what you want to be?’”
That put an end to the conversation, that day at least, but Catrina’s words only convinced Paolo that he needed to think it through more thoroughly and come up with answers to the questions his mother would undoubtedly ask next time.
A few weeks later, Paolo was ready. He raised the subject again at dinner, daring to broach it in front of both parents. Dito didn’t look up from his plate of pasta, and broke off mouthfuls of Catrina’s freshly baked bread without raising his head to look at his son.
“I think I could go to America to visit, see New York and maybe Washington,” Paolo began tentatively, touching the Nationals cap that he had hung on the chair beside him, as if it were some kind of talisman. His father still didn’t acknowledge the conversation, but Catrina responded.
“That sounds nice. What would you do there?”
“Maybe, first, I could just visit. Maybe I would discover that there was something I could do there. And, maybe I would find a job,” he replied, but his hesitation and string of ‘maybes’ proved that he still didn’t have the answers.
The meal ended without Dito engaging the topic. When the food was eaten and the last glass of wine was poured, he stood and asked his son to bring the file on wine buyers in so he could look it over and plan next year’s crop.