Black diamond, white diamond
Ask anyone to list what they consider 'Elite food', and most probably one of the common answers would be a truffle. So famous and defined that you don't really have to remind that these are mushrooms. This is not a new honor since the gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote already on 1825:
'It is safe to say that at the time of writing, the fame of the truffle is at its zenith'
(The Physiology of Taste, Penguin Books, 1970, pp.91)
This is the 87th year in which The International White Truffle Fair takes place in Alba, one of the oldest "official" food fairs which have been running consecutively in different formats since 1928, even before we started to make such a big deal out of food. Alba shouldn't be ashamed of what it holds all year long. It is one of the culinary centers of Piemonte region and besides white truffles, it is known also for its wines and hazelnuts, and also being the headquarters of Ferrero Group, and therefore of Nutella, Kinder, Tic Tac, and of course - Ferrero Rocher.
During the fair's period, which this year lasts until the 26th of November, Alba's narrow streets are filled with thousands of people who wish to touch, taste, and some of them will return home with aromatic treasures in their bags.
This year the fair was marked by hot weather that has striked Italy as a symptom of the global warming, which led to a substantial price rise in a market that anyways runs in the price range of precious metals. According to a report in the local newspaper the low levels of crops made the white truffles price jumps 30% from 4500 to 6000 Euros per 1 Kilo on the average. Definitely not like tomatoes.
Strolling through the stands made it real wherein most of them the price was that mentioned above - with rare finds of 550 Euros per 100 grams, and the less luxury, yet not less aromatic, black truffles were sold for 70 to 100 Euros for this weight. The truffles waited under glasses in order to save as much as possible their unique aroma. Some are tiny, some are bigger, and some are massive chunks with no price tag, and as you may well know - if there's no price tag next to something than its audience is the one who doesn't care about price tags. The stands offered also truffle by-products as butter and honey, pasta and oil - all with the gas-like smell which filled the large space.
I didn't have the courage to ask how much the right one costs
Between the bigger stands were independent hunters-gatherers who presented their products under mobile vitrines and on towels, line by line of black and white truffles, each one with a small note stating its weight - few grams, and its price - lots more of few Euros. When necessary a small weight came to assistance with affirming the weight, the price was set and the deal was signed.
Being the product itself and without any procession helps the visitors to meet the hunters-gatherers themselves - trifolai, derived from "trifole" which stands for "truffles" in the Piemontese dialect - without any mediation of a fancy chef in a pricey restaurant. And vice versa. Even if they don't work in fields, plowing and sawing these are farmers with fermery characteristics, but just in that case, they are wandering around in the forests by their villages along with their loyal dogs, digging their way to "the jewels of cookery" (Brillat-Savarin, pp. 91).
Standing in lines
Aldo Sciandra from the little town of Garessio, who has been hunting truffles for more than 50 years, was pretty gloomy regarding the crops this year. Pointing at what looked like small stones he explained that back in the days there was no chance to get to Saturday noon with anything in his cart, but nowadays the high prices . According to Sciandra the global warming is a fact, and there's no need for temperature measuring in order to observe its real effect on the area where he lives. Together with the heat that scorches the soil and affect the black truffles which spring out at summer, the lack of hydration during spring prevent from the ones which are supposed to pop up at autumn to do so. Sciandra reminded also landslides, which thankfully didn't cause casualties, but destroyed parts of the natural surroundings where the truffles grow and blocked the access to others.
After this conversation gorgeous V. and I decided (well, I took little more liberty to decide for both of us) that we must have a true culinary experience. So the price was paid, the truffles were placed in a paper towel and a small paper bag, and Sciandra added storage instructions - inside a glass container wrapped in a daily replaceable paper towel, and preparation instructions - at the most with butter!
Quite a pricey dust there…
Even before that, we had bought some black truffles - a great offer for a pack of three! - at the stand of the Curzietti family who comes from the tiny village San Marzano Oliveto. The smell of the bounty stayed in the bag along the weekend, also in the hotel room, on the train back to Rome, and thanks to Sciandra's advices - even days after.
Oh, and what came out eventually of our purchase?
Pappardelle with white truffles,
fried egg (local "Bull's eye") with black ones,
and lots of butter.