I began to feel feisty after the fifth month of cancer remission and – googling the internet – found that the Truffle festival in Alba, Italy was on in October. I knew I would feel better by then, it was a month away, five months after my last treatment. I decided to go for it. My friend Sweetpea, a great traveling companion, took a week off from her shops in Miami and we met at Heathrow and flew to Milan. Then a train to Turin and a car rental and we were there. I arrived tired but not too tired to have dinner at the organic restaurant “La Contea” which adjoined the inn. Then Sweetpea walked into Neive and I went to sleep.
The next day we drove into Alba. Truffles, salami, porcinis: at the Truffle fair; one drowns in them. I used to think white truffles were rare, but having seen at least a million that day, I’m not so sure. Every stand had hundreds of truffkes and there were enough left over to stuff mega salamis. I saw truffles that cost over one hundred euros each, but that was just the first week of the month-long festivities. I guess the thousand-dollar truffles come out later for the arrival of the stars attending the famous truffle auction.
My first close encounter with the white truffle came when I had about 4 grams (think about 30 Euros) shaved on my lovely soft-boiled duck’s egg at the organic restaurant the night before. Delicious if you love fresh eggs, which I do. I basked in the delicious smell of white truffle, but then the whole restaurant had a truffle kind of odor. It is the taste I’m not sure about. It seemed like the emperor’s new clothes. I decided that the restaurant owner (also the waiter and maitre d’) had been too parsimonious when shaving off the thin layers and the dish needed many more grams – big bucks, big tastes – but it also might have been that chemo was still interfering with my taste buds. The ritual is that the waiter, or owner in this case, brings out a small scale and weighs the truffle before it has been shaved. As the dinner went on more and more shavings are taken from the truffle. At bill-paying time what remains of the truffle is weighed again and the cost calculated, this is added to the cost of the food and the service charge.
The next day we went for the big experience: Piazza Duomo, a restaurant which had just won two Michelin stars. If you can’t taste the truffles here forget it. The restaurant is my idea of perfection. It serves about 40 people about eight tables; six were taken. The walls were very light, pastel murals done by Francesco Clemente. The service was supportive without being pompous or over zealous. There were many different tasting menus and even à la carte. We chose the truffle menu, of course: this was why we were in Alba.
The ritual of the weighing of the truffle commenced. We had a truffle the size of a golf ball to start with and we were going to have the waiter shave away. This time it was completely at our discretion.
For the first half hour we were offered one after another fabulous amuse-bouches.
The first sounds uninteresting but was delicious: the very ends of cauliflower served with a light broth and the smallest leaves of the flower for decoration; this is the way to get children to eat vegetables. Then we had a small portion of potato soup (very thick, like jelly) with a quail’s egg lurking at the bottom, served in a glass dish in the shape of an egg shell. The top is removed for serving. A few shavings of truffle went over this. I think I got a bit of truffle taste, but the smell and the taste are so closely aligned it is difficult to know.
The New Yorkers at the next table ordered à la carte and had the most tantalizing salad. (I was asked not to photograph them, but althoughI have chutzpah when it comes to food pictures I never had the nerve.) From my vantage point, a glass dish holding a small green hill of tiny salad leaves was visible. A dentist’s utensil, like a pincer, was provided for eating this delicate masterpiece of baby green leaves. A saucer in the bottom caught the dressing so that it could be drunk. I was jealous.
Next came scallops with a black truffle and anchovy sauce, and I gilded the lily with more shavings of white truffles. Then came the carne crudo, which was outstanding. Again I piled on the truffles because I had eaten beef tartare once before and thought the truffles would improve my negative feelings about it. I need not have bothered – with or without the truffles this was memorable.
Then came the home-made pasta – of course, pile on the truffles. At this point you would think everything would have tasted the same since every course had truffles. It doesn’t, because white truffles are like transparent paint on canvas, where you can distinctly see hints of the color beneath.
Out came the partridge, in a fois gras tree (not pears this time). I had cooked partridge twice in the last weeks because it was in season and I kept buying it at our farmers’ market (the first time mistaking it for pheasant). Just the breast and the leg were served making it easy to eat and even with the fois gras sauce it was very subtly flavored. I tend to go heavy on the thyme and lemon, but here it would have overpowered the very, very subtle truffle; and if you have it at my house you have to tackle the whole damned bird.
The main dessert was a Mont Blanc, a chestnut ice cream, with a chestnut pudding topped with snow, and a chestnut-flavored chantilly cream. I stuffed the extras (cookies, chocolates) in my handbag, but ate the angelic chocolate foam. And then the bill came and I realized the taste of truffles is the taste of money. (Approx. $400.00 for two – and my friend doesn’t drink wine.)
Walking through Heathrow on the way home, I realized that I couldn’t carry all my paraphernalia, and I worried (needlessly) that there would be no porters. But I was right to worry for another reason: Dr Spittle knew immediately that my cancer was back. Lucky I got away when did.