Italia 2: Gastronomical Utopia – Truffle Hunt & Tasting

Bonne Année! 2013 has come and gone filled with lots of fun adventures eating yummy food and traveling to exciting destinations. I’ll be writing about my experiences over many more posts but I’d like to begin the new year with my most memorable meal in of 2013.

If you want to experience Florence like a Florentine, I would strongly suggest visiting between November and March.  Otherwise, I would recommend having a short stay and visiting other parts of Tuscany.  We stayed for 5 days but were able to flee the tourist crowds by hopping onto one of many Italian commuter trains to different towns around Florence for a few laid back day trips.  Our most noteworthy escape was to the Tuscan town of San Miniato.

As soon as we reached the San Miniato train station, our driver picked us up and drove us to meet Salvatore, the truffle hunter, and Billy, his truffle hunting dog.  Timing couldn’t be better as we arrived at the tail end of the summer black truffle season and at the beginning of the fall white truffle season in mid September.   Truffle hunting and tasting was another first for us.

On a fertile private wooded property in San Miniato, Billy quickly found a few black truffles. We were invited to touch and smell them.  If you’ve never smelled a fresh truffle think damp earthy, and musty. Doesn’t sound too appetizing but some things taste better than they smell, such as some stinky cheeses or kimchi.  Then we found a few of our first prized white truffles!  Not as big or as pungent as they can get in the height of the growing season in October but they still had very strong and distinct aroma.

After about an hour and a half of hunting, we were driven to Salvatore’s charming home where we were greeted by his daughter Leticia and son Massimo.  Massimo and I corresponded frequently via email to arrange this memorable afternoon and Leticia prepared our mouth watering truffle feast.

We dined on their terrace overlooking their urban garden where we were served our first course, a very simple uncrusted sliced bread with cream cheese with shaved black and white truffles.  The black truffles were great but the white ones were mind blowing. Black truffles can be cooked to enhance their flavour but whites are much more delicate and instead are usually shaved on a dish prior to serving.

Black and white truffle apps

Simple pasta with white truffles

 

Next was a fresh egg noodle spaghetti sautéed in butter and parmigiano with shaved white truffles. Exquisite.

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The last truffle course was an extra virgin olive oil poached free range egg in a porcelain pot.  Leticia invited us into the kitchen to see her prepare the dish. After a few minutes of poaching, she turned off the stove, shaved the white truffles, covered the pot and brought it back to our table.  As we sat, Leticia opened the cover so we could smell the aroma before we slowly savoured THE best truffle course of the meal.

We ended our meal with a very simple dolce: cantucci (a smaller sized traditional Tuscan almond biscotti) dipped in a traditional Tuscan digestif Vin Santo.

Fresh white truffles are one of the most luxurious edible commodities I have ever eaten.  Truffles are rare, white truffles even more rare.  White truffles are only available a few months a year, in very few parts of Italy and Europe and must be foraged by specially trained dogs or pigs.  White truffles are best served with a mild or minimally prepared dish to fully appreciate its distinct flavour.  Words can’t fully describe white truffles until you taste them for yourself.

Truffle in Tuscany website for more information

Italia 1: Epic Culinary Tour in Emilia Romagna

It would only be fitting to begin posting about my most recent culinary voyage to Italy, as its aromas, flavours and sights (with some encouragement from family and friends) gave me the inspiration to start my own food blog. Et voilà bienvenue!

The birth of a parmigiano reggiano cheese wheel

The birth of a parmigiano reggiano cheese wheel

Parmigiano Reggiano aged cheese with D.O.P. stamp

Parmigiano Reggiano aged cheese with D.O.P. stamp

The day after we landed in Bologna, the food capital of Italy, we began our grastronomical tour in the Emilia Romagna region.  Our day of feasting was led by the charismatic and energetic, Alessandro, founder and owner of his food tour company Italian Days.  We started bright and early at a Parmigiano Reggiano, “King of cheeses,” factory just outside of Bologna.  We saw the morning’s locally produced whole milk and the previous evening’s skim milk boiled into large copper lined vats and then transformed into a Parmigiano Reggiano wheel.

The King of cheesesThe cheese is then aged up to 30 months and every single wheel is tested by consortium inspectors to ensure a minimum standard of quality before being stamped D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) .  After touring the various aging rooms we moved back outside for the most important part of the cheese tour, the taste test! We sampled Grade A and Grade B Parmigiano Reggiano with a locally produced sparkling red wine called Lambrusco. Grade B, primarily used for cream sauces, tasted cheesy and creamy. B has not met the standards to be stamped D.O.P. and is marked with lines to distinguish it.  On the other hand, Grade A had a complexe and savory nutty flavour.  I also preferred the fact that this very natural and traditionaly crafted cheese was not as salty as I expected. We gave our own stamp of approval on both but preferred A!  Back at home I only bought Parmigiano Reggiano to grate over pastas, here in Italy it’s served very simply in chunks or with a splash of real balsamic vinegar.

Our next stop was at a Traditional Balsamic Vinegar maker at a villa in the town of Modena.  In Modena, D.O.P. vinegar must be made of a reduction of Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes grown in the region. The grape must is then aged for a minimum of 12 or 25 years in a battery of oak and other varieties of wood barrels.  We learned that true Traditional Balsamic Vinegar di Modena can only have one ingredient: cooked grape must. The fake stuff includes additives such as wine vinegar or caramel colouring.  So folks, it’s worth reading ingredient labels! This was my favorite tasting of the day as I had never tried the real “black gold.” Our tasting included their 6 year condiment (non-D.O.P.),  and their 12 and 25 year D.O.P. vinegars.  All three selections tasted nothing like vinegar.  Both the 12 and 25 year had a light syrup consistency with a smooth complexe flavour. Best to drizzle over steaks, grilled vegetables, cheeses and of course gelato!

Proscuitto di Modena D.O.P.

Proscuitto di Modena D.O.P.

Our last stop before lunch was at a Proscuitto di Modena factory.   Alessandro informed us that hams from Modena and Parma are pretty much the same, both tested by the same consortium, use the same ingredients, standards and cured in controlled indoor facilities.  The pigs used are all natural, fed a strict diet of grains and whey (from the making of Parmigiano Reggiano) and must be raised within the region.  We visited the various curing rooms with literally thousands of salted pig’s hind legs. The hinds must be cured for at least 24 months and again tested for D.O.P. certification.   The prosciutto was soft but, in my opinion, a bit too salty to just eat on its own.

Cream of parmigiano reggiano meat filled tortellini

Cream of parmigiano reggiano meat filled tortellini

Our last stop was at a hilltop trattoria just outside downtown Bologna where we feasted on an 8 course family style lunch including pasta handmade by a nonna.  I normally don’t prefer cream based pastas  but my favorite dish was surprisingly the meat filled cream of parmigiano tortellini.  The pasta wasn’t drowning in a soup of thick liquid, instead it was lightly covered with cream and cheese.  Alessandro not only ensured we stuffed our bellies, he was very informative and funny throughout the entire day!  Often tourists, even those who love food, skip Bologna and the Emilia Romagna region to ride the romantic (or not so romantic) gondolas in Venice, to feel the excitement in Rome or view the rolling hills of the Tusan Valley.  However, they don’t realize that they’re missing out on discovering and savouring some of the best Italian staple ingredients in their truest form. I highly recommend visiting this area of Italy to foodies and non.  Ciao! Ciao!

www.italiandays.it