There is a country called Italy. And in this country there is a province called Tuscany that is famous because Baby Boomer American tourists like to visit it to experience ‘Culture’. And in this place called Tuscany, there is an abundance of Beauty. This Beauty is overwhelmingly package and pruned, designed and landscaped to exceed your expectations. Most of Tuscany is trying to be the Tuscany of your fantasies; cultural and gastronomic porn that is just too wonderfully sensual to be of this world. There is a lot of this Beauty; glossy, magazine-cover Beauty.
Volterra doesn’t fit into this category. (Even though the town was sold to me as the town the may have been (or may not have been) featured in a Twilight movie and or book. Oh, I’m overwhelmed with excitement. Really I am.) Volterra is far along a very narrow road (think severe motion sickness even for us sailors), and on a cold November Sunday morning you have to be pretty damned determined to get your dose of Cutural Authenticity and subterranean fungus to visit a town that is so far high up on a hill that I can’t even see it through the icy clouds.
There are certain foods, that based on their rarity and associated price, that your average hungry human feels obliged to enjoy and savour at every opportunity. This feeling of obligation almost certainly occurs when the bill is being picked up by another party, and most definitely when in the company of social equals and or betters, and one is trying valiantly to appear cultured. *gag* This group of foods contains many of my food heroes – and some that, no matter how much I try, I just can’t bear them. I love champagne. I would choose to have champagne apertifs before every dinner for the rest of life, even if all I could afford to follow it with was beans on toast. However, there are some morsels that I just think aren’t worth the doily they are served on. I think oysters are over-rated, especially since I know that for most of human civilisation oysters have been the food of the poor masses. I just don’t understand why my generation should be duped into spending a fortune in posh restaurants for something that Dickensian slum dwellers would’ve turned their grubby noses up at. Similiarly, I feel the same about caviar. If a fishy snack is what you’re after, allow me to recommend Peck’s Anchovette on toast (and without the worrying dental consequences of having lots of little orange fish eggs in your mouth). A food formally grouped into this category used to be truffles (the mushroom kind, not the chocolate kind). Although maybe like a fine wine, I’m gradually becoming more high-maintenance and elitist in my golden-late-twenties.
Volterra hosts an annual Truffle Festival every November, (as the finest and most intense truffles are harvested in the winter time) and this gathering gets the season of spore-infused madness underway. Its no Mardi Gras, but instead this festival stays close to the ground, and is more of a Celebration of the Truffle in its many forms. Actually that’s a lie, because truffles generally only come in two forms: black and white, and both look like something between construction rubble and fossilised dinosaur turds (technically, a coprolite for my geek readers). It’s only the obsessive truffle folk who try to manipulate this humble mushroom into just about any edible product you can imagine. Due to the fragility of the truffle fragrance, truffles are most commonly steeped in olive oil, but can also be found in honey, jams, marmelades, pâtés, tapenades, vinegars, white sauces, cheese sauces, butter, lardo (what it sounds like, lard), hard cheeses, soft cheeses, salamis and sausages. Shake a stick at your average supermarket aisle, and I’m sure some fungo-phile has dosed it with truffle extract. Earl Grey Tea? Delicious. Fabric Softner? No problem. Kitty Litter? Absolutely! The end result of this is two fold; there is plenty of choice for the Truffle Lovers, and these wily old Italian folk have found an ingenious way to inflate the price of ordinary groceries by about 400%.
Truffles are not for the budget conscious, but then ask any Truffle-Humper, and they will swear that no price is too high. (I actually know of a Truffle-Humper, no jokes.) Truffles are measure out by the gram, and depending on demand and climate, can escalate to up to €5000 a kilogram! The past two or three summers have been particularly dry with the low rainfall inhibiting the truffle spores underground. Combined with growing demand from China for rare luxury goods, truffle prices are at an all time high. Luckily, there have been successful harvests (forages..?) in places such as Croatia and Australia, so there are hopes for more variety and value for money in the Truffle market. Although, no doubt it’ll only be a matter of time before the French stamp out all imposters and we’ll have to refer to foreign truffles as “Fungus grown in the French Style” or “Spores à la française” or something equally prepostorous and clumsy.
It was certainly thrilling to meet farmers and producers face to face, talking about their produce and their truffle hounds. We found some excellent cheeses, really – excellent. One that stands out was a producer from Florence, Forme D’Arte who shared with us a pecorino cheese infused with pear extract that was just heavenly. Due to the wintery weather, the festival is dotted all over the small town, huddled in doorways, filling archways and in one case, in the foyer of an ancient and crumbling apartment building.
After a full day of truffle assault, I had had enough. Really, enough. Enough truffle until next year at least, and maybe even the year after that. Although leaving Volterra, I wished that the universal term ‘Food Festival’ meant less candy floss, jumpy castles and cooking demos and more straw-on-the-floor, dirt-under-the finger-nails farmers market. I hoped that we could learn to celebrate the Farmers and not the Salesmen, the Growing and not the Buying, the Sharing and not always the Consuming. Because nothing gets you in the mood for Pollan-esque rants on food philosphy quite like little expensive dinosaur turds.
Pictures courtesy of Jay’s Camera.