Helen Cooper truffle hunting in Acqualagna

simoHi everybody.

Where Lemons Blossom is back after a pretty long Summer break. We apologize for our lingering absence (!) but we are ready to start with renewed enthusiasm and plenty of ideas.

We picked today to start our blogging activity again as it is our daughter’s first school day.

To us September (and not January) is the month of the year when we are full of good intentions like going on a serious diet, eating more organic food, taking daily excercise, tidying up the garage, starting studying a new foreign language, changing job, starting blogging regularly (!) and the unrealistic list could go on forever.

Anyway, Where Lemons Blossom is back, and I would like to share with you an article by Helene Cooper, a White House correspondent with The New York Times, truffle hunting in Acqualagna (within our Province of Pesaro and Urbino).

Walter and I won’t miss Acqualagna Truffle Fair at the end of October/beginning of November.

In the meantime: enjoy Helen Cooper’s truffle hunting!

Ph. taken from acqualagna.com


ACQUALAGNA, Italy  – Six and a half minutes after we set out, Mina found the first black truffle. “Mina — Brava! Brava!” yelled Giorgio Remedia, ambling over to his canine hunter as she furiously dug into a patch of moist earth near a hazelnut tree. Using his sharpened hoe, Giorgio — ruddy complexion, thick ginger hair — quickly extracted the black truffle, then tossed it to me nonchalantly. It was about three-quarters the size of my palm, black, dirty and pungently aromatic.

The friends I had dragged out on my truffle-hunting extravaganza swarmed around me, noses twitching, as we sniffed at our earthy, musky treasure. As far as we were concerned, we could go home now and call it a good day. We had all heard stories of tourists hunting for hours in the woods of Italy or France, coming back with nothing and ending up at some market where they spent thousands of euros for a kilogram of the stuff.

But why pity them? They had made their choice, traveling en masse to some overly trampled place like Provence or Périgord or Alba, in the Piedmont.

Instead, we were lucky enough to have found a place far from the crowds, in the little town of Acqualagna, in the off-the-beaten-path Italian province of Le Marche.

“This is the democratic tartufo,” said Bruno Capanna, the town’s former-mayor-turned-truffle-entrepreneur, who organized our hunt. With the right dog and hunter, he added, anyone could find tartufi neri, or black truffles.

And for far less cost than usual. Crowing delightedly that our morning hunt had already proved fruitful, my friends and I plowed on deeper into the woods, following Giorgio and Bruno, and, of course, Mina (she of the extraordinary nose). Our first tartufo, now comfy and safe in the bulky left pocket of my hunting vest, jostled against my leg. Unable to resist, I stuck my hand in to make sure it was still there.

Everyone knows that truffles are hard to find. In the forests of France and Italy, the truffle trade has long been closeted in as much stealth (blame zealous tax collectors and tax-evading hunters) as Colombian cocaine.

The world’s most expensive fungi, they develop under mounds of dirt near the roots of oak, hazelnut and other trees, and have been prized for centuries for their pungent aroma and full-on, robust taste. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the 18th-century equivalent of today’s celebrity chefs, famously called truffles the “diamonds of the kitchen.”

They are normally about as expensive as diamonds, too. In 2007, one lunatic paid $330,000 for a three-pound white truffle found near Pisa, Italy. In the Périgord region of France, black truffles routinely go for $5,000 a kilo, or a touch over two pounds.

My first experience with the delights of a black truffle was at the hands of the chef Wolfgang Puck, who flew in to Washington a few years ago to cook a dinner at the residence of a foreign ambassador. “Wolfgang Puck is in your kitchen?” I exclaimed, and in my haste to meet Mr. Puck, charged noisily through the residence and into the kitchen. There he stood, bent over, shaving a Périgord black truffle over a tray of hot, crispy, cheesy, buttery crostini.

He gave me one to taste. The combination of what was essentially a hot grilled-cheese sandwich joined with the fragrant, rich, gamy truffle sent me straight into rapture. “How much does that thing cost?” I asked, gesturing to the fist-size truffle in his hand. He shrugged. “Don’t ask.”

Clearly I couldn’t afford it. But I was hooked. A problem, then.

Acqualagna to the rescue.

On a recent vacation in Italy, I visited Urbino, the spectacular renaissance city in Le Marche, where I somehow ended up in a cafe sipping Campari with some locals at twilight. One of them was Bruno, and he was going on about democracy. Then I heard him say something about democracy and the tartufo nero, the black truffle.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

He said nearby Acqualagna was the tartufo capital of Italy.

“I thought Alba was the tartufo capital.”

“No, no,” he protested. Those crooks in Alba had marketed themselves as the truffle capital, he said, and half the time they imported their truffles from Acqualagna.

For centuries, Bruno said, the hills above Acqualagna have been known for their truffles, both the summer black and the rarer (and more expensive) winter white, the tartufo bianco.

“Back in 1502, the beautiful Lucrezia Borgia passed through Acqualagna with her wedding procession to reach her third husband, the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este,” he said. Signora Borgia, he said, enjoyed “the famous truffles of Acqualagna.” He had a long list of other historic figures who had come through Acqualagna and eaten truffles; I heard him going on about Pope Julius II, and even Il Duce himself, Mussolini, who ate truffles at the nearby Antico Furlo restaurant in Furlo.

But all I could focus on was the bit about democracy and the tartufo nero. Bruno was starting a business, Acqualagna Café, providing fresh black truffles and black truffle sauces for the masses, he said, at a much more economical price than white truffles.

What people don’t realize, he said, is that in Acqualagna, the black truffle is easy to find. Then he sat back and flashed me his wide grin, having cast his lure.

I was perfectly happy to be reeled in. “Prove it,” I said.

A few days later, we were tramping through the woods with Giorgio, Bruno and Mina, as part of a hunt organized by Marche Holiday. The company organizes truffle hunts for about 40 euros ($53) a person; clients can buy the truffles they find — about 10 euros for a quarter of a pound.

After finding the first truffle, Mina quickly found five more. We had been out for 20 minutes and already had six truffles. The scent coming from my pocket was seriously ripe.

It’s the scent that requires you to take along a dog, Giorgio said. While there are plenty of signs on the ground to give humans a hint that truffles are buried in a particular spot (splits in the tree roots, flies, metal divining rods that cross), a truffle is not ripe until you can smell it. Or, more accurately, until a serious nose, like a dog’s or a pig’s, can smell it.

“Why not use a pig?” I asked, as Mina found our seventh truffle. We were beside a stream that ran along a lightly forested hill, and Mina was digging like mad. Giorgio said something to Mina, and she extracted the truffle with her teeth, ran over to Giorgio and dropped it into his outstretched hand.

“A pig would eat the truffle,” he said, giving Mina a dog biscuit. “You don’t want to have to wrestle a pig.” He turned back to the dog. “Dove, Mina? C’e?”

I started to fret that all the Italian I was picking up on this trip would be limited to the extremely narrow territory of tartufo hunting.

Truffles 8, 9 and 10 emerged together at the half-hour point. Truffle 11 was a fist-size monster, dwarfing truffle 12, which, while little in comparison, was still a nice, ripe, satisfying-looking black knob. We had been out for all of 40 minutes and had a dozen truffles.

Next stop was Giorgio’s home (his yard is filled with barking dogs), so he could introduce us to his papa, Aldo Remedia, 87, a seriously grande formaggio in the Acqualagna truffle world. Back in his day, Aldo once went out truffle hunting with Giorgio on their 74 acres of forest and came back with 28 kilos (nearly 62 pounds) of black truffles.

“That,” Giorgio said proudly, “was the best day of my life.”

Then it was back to town, to Osteria Del Parco, for Part 2 of our truffle day. In Acqualagna’s sole piazza, the chef Samuele Ferri, beaming broadly, waited at the door to show us what to do with our stash.

We were falling over ourselves with demands. “Frittata!” I hollered. “Tagliatelle!” my friend Ana added.

Samuele seized our bounty and gave a quick 15-minute demonstration on how to make the perfect frittata al tartufo (just mix some truffle sauce with the eggs into a runny omelet, and shave the fresh truffles over it) and the over-the-top-delicious tagliatelle al tartufo, which involved cream, truffle sauce, butter, fresh tagliatelle and fresh truffle shavings, all combined into a dish so scrumptious I hid near the refrigerator to scarf down the rest of sample plate he had just made.

He shooed us out of the kitchen, and I joined my friends at the dining table, where in 10 minutes lunch started coming out.

First, we had the frittata, oozing with butter and the aroma of our truffles. Next came crostini tartufo: simply grilled bread spread with truffle sauce. Then I got my second helping of the tagliatelle, slippery and creamy. Then there was deep-fried breaded turkey scaloppine, smothered in truffle sauce and shaved truffles.

Samuele made threatening noises about dessert, but I waved my white napkin in surrender. I know when I’m beaten.

But viva democracy.


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