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Ciao Italia in Umbria
Black Truffles for Toscanella, That Noble Dog!
Frittata ai Tartufi Neri (Black Truffle Omelette)
Penne Tartufate (Penne with Truffles and Cream)
Spaghetti ai Tartufi Neri (Spaghetti with Black Truffles)
Scaloppine di Vitello ai Tartufi Neri e Fragole (Veal with Black Truffle and Strawberry Sauce)
Toscanella, a mutt with a sleek brown coat, seemed charged up today. Maybe she sensed that visitors had come to watch her perform a unique job for which she has been trained from the time she was a five-month-old pup: to hunt for tartufi neri, black truffles. a fungus that grows underground near the base of oak trees and for which the Italians have a great appetite. Black truffles are synonymous with Umbria and the pride of the region, just as bistecca (steak) is the pride of Tuscany, and the ubiquitous pizza is the pride of Naples.
Toscanella takes her orders from owner Mario Martelli, a proud tartufaro (truffle hunter); tall and slender with piercing green eyes and a wily smile, he was born in Montefalco. Mario is considered an independent truffle hunter who hunts where permitted in public areas. He pays a tax to the government for this privilege, or he makes an arrangement with private landowners to scour their woodlands. He has been training dogs and searching for truffles his whole life, and he is anxious to instruct me in the art of the hunt. As many times as I have been to Umbria, especially around the area of Spello, I have always wondered how dogs were able to find this unique food.
Mario explained that at one time truffle hunters used pigs tounearth what had become known as "black gold," but they found that to be a money-losing proposition, since the pigs enjoyed the truffles themselves! Dogs do not have such exquisite taste and are first trained to hunt the bianchetto (small truffle). The dog's keen sense of smell becomes his guide. From recognizing the smell of the bianchetto the dogs quickly learn to smell and search for the larger winter black truffle, which is hunted from December to mid-March, from north of Tuscany to the center of Umbria. The summer truffle, called scorzone, has nubbies, or bumps, all over it, and can be found from May to August. The autumn truffle appears from October to November; it is brown with a brown interior and has smaller nubbies than the summer variety.
Mario said just one magic word to Toscanellaqua, which means here. This commanded the dog to look in certain areas around the base of oak trees where small plants have withered and died and grass does not grow, a sure sign that there lie, hidden in the earth, black truffles that are sapping nutrients from around the tree. With a stick Mario directed Toscanella to the area where he suspected the truffles would be found. Sure enough, and in almost an instant, Toscanella sniffed, scratched the soil, then burrowed her nose not too far into the ground. She brought up a truffle in her mouth and quickly deposited this "black gold" in Mario's hand. At first glance black truffles are no beauties, nothing to rave about. To my eye they looked like misshapen nuggets with crags and gnarls and bumps all over them. But as is true of the old adage that you can't tell a book by its cover, you cannot appreciate a black truffle until you have your first taste.
Toscanella was rewarded with un bicottino (little cookie) and a gentle pat on the head. The glow on Mario's face was almost as priceless as the truffle he put in his leather pouch. It is this team effort, the culmination of all the time this man and dog have spent together in training and in trusting one another, that makes finding truffles so mesmerizing.
Each seasonal variety has its distinguishing characteristics, withthe winter truffle being the most prized for its woodsy, mossy, earthy smell. Black as coal and having a smoother surface than summer or fall truffles, their flavor can best be described as that of the forest. In fact, I find it ludicrous to even try to describe the flavor; it is simply unique. Some suggest that it is an acquired taste, but I was drawn to them immediately. Summer truffles are also black and have a white interior; they are not as aromatic as their winter cousins.
As the hunt wore on, I was amazed that in less than ten minutes Toscanella had scampered from tree to tree and uncovered a stash of truffles ranging in size from a golf ball to a tomato. This was the first time I had ever experienced what it took to find them, and I was like a schoolgirl, just giddy with joy to hold and smell them. As a cook I felt the urge to get to the kitchen and enjoy them over a plate of steaming tagliatelle before their magic qualities evaporated into thin air.
Mario's facial expression turned serious as he explained that hunting for black truffles can be a dangerous occupation. Each dog that is trained to hunt is considered a precious dog, and it is not unheard of for the tartufaro to have two or more dogs for the task, since envy does exist among truffle hunters and some have been known to go so far as to poison a rival hunter's dogs! Since truffles command such a hefty price, he who finds the most will reap monetary gain. That is why it is always best to keep the whereabouts of truffles to yourself and seek them out at times when no one is looking. As soon as truffles are unearthed, they are sold; many are spoken for before they ever leave their hidden environment by wholesalers, restaurants, and gourmands.
It is best to use truffles as soon as you get them, because they deteriorate quickly. They can be stored for a few days at most if kept in the refrigerator wrapped in brown paper. To clean them simply brush the dirt away.
I asked Mario what was the best way to preserve truffles for a longer period of time. He grinds them up in a meat grinder on asmall-hole setting and stores the bits in olive oil, then uses them in such classic Umbrian recipes as truffle with bruschetta, with eggs, with trout, and with pasta. One thing you quickly learn about truffles is that they are never cooked; cooking them would destroy their flavor. They are meant to be warmed in olive oil or used raw, thinly shaved over a dish of pasta or rice.
By now I was lamenting to Mario about not being able to enjoy these truffles at home. He waved his arms as if to dismiss such a question. Truffles belong to Umbria, to Italy, he said. "You eat them here, non è vero, Toscanella?"
Note: Truffles are available in the United States from several importers. Urbani, with operations in Umbria and Long Island, will ship truffles You can also find jarred truffles, truffle paste, truffle-infused cheese, and truffle oils in Italian specialty stores or online. Although these processed truffle products are tasty, they can never compare with the real thing.
Frittata ai Tartufi Neri
Black Truffle Omelette
4 large eggs 1¼ teaspoons salt 1 small black truffle, grated, or 1½ teaspoons truffle paste 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
One of the most popular ways that Umbrians enjoy black truffles is with eggs, either in a frittata or mixed into scrambled eggs. This is usually served as a first course.
Beat the eggs with a whisk in a bowl with the salt. Stir in the truffle or truffle paste.
Heat the oil in a 10-inch nonstick pan. When it begins to shimmer, carefully pour in the egg mixture. Cook over medium heat until the top is set. Serve immediately.
Penne with Truffles and Cream
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature 1 cup heavy cream 4 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese Salt to taste 1 pound penne 4 ounces black truffle, grated, or 3½ ounces or 4 tablespoons of the jarred equivalent Ground black pepper to taste
As if black truffles alone were not wonderful enough as an ingredient, there is always this rich penne, black truffle, and heavy cream dish to consider. I usually make this for a very important occasion, since fresh truffles can cost more than an entire food budget for a week! I find that one medium-size truffle, about the size of a small lemon, is the perfect amount here. The alternative to fresh are the much less expensive jarred black truffles or even truffle paste. You decide.
Heat the butter and cream over low heat in a saute pan large enough to accommodate the penne after it is cooked. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the cheese. Keep the sauce warm.
Cook the penne in 4 quarts of boiling water to which 1 tablespoon of salt has been added. As it cooks, break a piece of penne in the center to see that no white, raw flour remains; this is pasta cooked al dente. Drain the pasta in a colander, then transfer it to the saute pan with the butter and cream. Stir in the truffle, the remaining cheese, and salt and pepper just before taking the pan from the heat.
Transfer the penne to a serving platter and enjoy this fabulous dish at once! I liked it left over as well.
Spaghetti ai Tartufi Neri
Spaghetti with Black Truffles
2 fresh black truffles or 2 canned (if you must) cup extra-virgin olive oil 1 pound spaghetti 2 cloves garlic, minced ½ teaspoon salt Grated pecorino cheese (optional)
Black truffles are known as trifolati in Umbria. One of the easiest and tastiest uses for them is in this dish. To get the most flavor, soak the shaved truffle slices in a good extra-virgin olive oil for a day before putting the dish together.
If the truffles are dirty, brush them with a mushroom brush or a paper towel. Slice them very thin with a truffle slicer, a sharp knife, or on a box cheese grater. Place the truffles in a shallow dish and pour the olive oil over them. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to remain at room temperature for several hours or overnight.
Cook the spaghetti, following the directions for cooking pasta. While the spaghetti is cooking, in a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil that the truffles are marinating in and cook the garlic until it is soft but not browned. Turn off the heat and add the remaining olive oil and the truffles.
Drain the spaghetti, reserving 2 tablespoons of the cooking water. Add the spaghetti and reserved water to the skillet. Reheat the mixture over very low heat just until it is hot. Stir in the salt. Transfer the mixture to a platter and serve immediately. Pass the cheese on the side if desired.
Scaloppine di Vitello ai Tartufi Neri e Fragole
Veal with Black Truffles and Strawberry Sauce
Salt and pepper to taste Six 8-ounce veal cutlets about ¼ inch thick 8 ripe strawberries, stemmed 6 tablespoons unsalted butter 3 ounces black truffle paste ½ cup dry white wine 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour ½ cup thin shavings of pecorino cheese 2 fresh or frozen cooked artichoke hearts, cut into thin slices
Thin slices of veal cutlet cooked flash in the pan and then baked with a topping of fresh strawberries, black truffle paste, slivers of cheese, and artichokes slices sounds exotic, and it is! This unusual and delicious preparation is the work of chef-teacher Mario Ragni, who showed me how it was done in his Ristorante M.R. in Perugia. I was a little leery, but my skepticism was laid to rest with one heavenly taste and the twinkle in his eye.
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Rub salt and pepper all over the veal cutlets and set aside.
Mash the strawberries in a small bowl with a fork and set aside.
Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the strawberries and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the truffle paste and blend well. Set aside.
Melt the remaining butter in a 10- to 12-inch saute pan over medium-high heat. Brown the cutlets in batches, about 1 minute on each side. Remove and keep warm.
Stir the wine and flour into the drippings in the saute pan and cook until smooth, about 1 minute. Stir in the strawberry and truffle mixture, and cook until the sauce is slightly thickened. Spoon the sauce over the veal slices. Cover the sauce with the cheese shavings.
Bake the veal for 5 minutes, or just until the cheese is melted. Sprinkle the artichoke slices over the veal and serve at once.
CIAO ITALIA IN UMBRIA. Copyright ©2002 by Mary Ann Esposito. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.