Saturday, November 29, 2014

Little Piggies on a Truffle Hunt

Beauties and the beast.

Our first jaunt through the country shaped like a boot was to begin with a short stay in Florence and then a weekend in the minuscule mountaintop village of San Miniato, home to Pepenero, where Julia had worked, and host to the (be still, my beating heart) San Miniato Truffle Festival. Though lesser known than the famous Alba Truffles, San Miniato Truffles are no less delicious, and no less prized among those who know them. The festival draws upwards of 80,000 visitors to the tiny town over its three weekends, and though Julia’s nostalgia was a big part of the pull for our return, I'd be lying if I said that truffles weren't the main draw.

We flew into Florence, landing after dark and hailing a cab to our hotel, which sat outside the city on the banks of the Arno. Tired from a long day of travel, we took advantage of the hotel's spa facilities and decided to stay in for dinner. Despite (or perhaps due to) a minimally populated dining room, we were welcomed warmly and escorted to a table. It didn't take long to scout the menu, our hunger (both literal and metaphorical) for feel-good Italian food dictating our choices. The wine list was another brief perusal as we quickly encountered a reasonably priced bottle of Montepulciano, our favorite Tuscan varietal. Clinking glasses of voluptuous, violet elixir, we toasted our arrival to Italy and settled in.

Perfect for snuggling!
The meal began with crostones (like a crostini but full-size) topped with the simple, yet exquisite, duo of prosciutto crudo and mozzarella di bufala. This was what we had been waiting for: salty, fatty, yet somehow laced with levity, the prosciutto hit our senses first, then faded dreamily to cream as the mozzarella enveloped our every tastebud. The combination was as old and charming as Tuscany itself, and it occurred to me that we could have made a meal out of this and nothing else. I consciously savored every nibble, every chew, every elastic string of cheese and toothsome bite of tender pork, wishing it didn't have to end. And this was only course one.

Pasta courses only raised the bar: Julia's was oversized ravioli filled with eggplant and ricotta, formed with artisinal craft and looking like delicate, pale yellow handkerchiefs draped about their ingredients. My plate was beautifully simple: spaghetti and tomato sauce crowned with precious dollops of mozzarella di bufala. A mere three ingredients, and somehow each nearly outshone the others. The al dente spaghetti was springy and tender, the tomato sauce tangy and herbaceous with a hint of sweetness; and the mozzarella (oh, the mozzarella) was buttery and mellow, belying a bounty of flavor as it melted into the pasta. Our forks moved slowly and deliberately as we ate, and we admired our plates like great works of art, exchanging glances both incredulous and ecstatic. Despite the culinary and sensory heights we had heretofore experienced on our journey, the pleasure of Italian simplicity could not be overstated. Minimal ingredients prepared with abundant love: this is what Italy does.
Take a ride on the chew-chew train...

The Branzino we enjoyed next was superb, bearing an Italian soul: oregano flecked its delicate filets and the plate was sprinkled with a handful of capers and gently roasted cherry tomatoes. Though Italy tends to serve a fish like Branzino whole, in all its glory, the filets were a welcome surprise for me (I'm admittedly not so good with pin-bones), and their clean flavor and simple accents nourished our souls along with our bellies. Who knew a piece of fish, uncomplicated and minimally embellished, could make a person so happy? Tiramisu closed the meal, its cookies and mascarpone cream prepared traditionally and served in a bar glass. Everything about the dessert was delightful, from its intoxicating amaretto flavor, to the attractive cross-section of lady-fingers and custard carved out by our spoons.

A shuttle took us into the city the next morning. We were in Florence for but a day, with much to accomplish: Julia was on a mission for a pair of boots and a purse for her sister, I needed a new wallet, and we had plans to meet friends for lunch. Not to mention the most important mission of all: finding the sandwich that first introduced Julia to the wondrous, magnificent, more-perfect-than-heaven creation known as porchetta (see my first post on this glorious food if you're unfamiliar). Though breakfast at the hotel had been ample, this infamous porchetta sandwich was the absolute highlight of Florence as far as we were concerned, and it would make a perfect second breakfast (to borrow a hobbit's term), nestled between (first) breakfast and lunch.

Julia remembered that the sandwich lay within a large indoor market beside Florence's leather district, a perfect location in light of our aforementioned errands. Thanks to her ever-impressive sense of memory-based direction (it had been over five years since her last visit), my wife lead us through the city, instinctively weaving her way through its tangle of streets, until we found ourselves facing a long, tapered path between innumerable stalls stocking all things leather. Doing our best to play it cool among the vendors that thrust their goods in our faces, we walked among the stalls until I spotted a wallet that suited my tastes; a few moments and some minor haggling, and it was mine. After a quick transfer of credit cards and other assorted contents, I tossed its predecessor in a nearby trash bin. It was time for porchetta.

The market was right where Julia had remembered it, and we climbed its steps excitedly. Upon entering, it became clear that we'd need to take at least one lap to survey and admire its myriad booths, stalls, and counters, a veritable foodie heaven. There was nothing one might want to cook or eat that couldn't be found in this market: staples like bread, meat, and produce were displayed from corner to corner in all their fresh, vibrant glory, baskets and bins comprised of every variety and varietal Italy could offer. But beyond the standard market items the average shopper might hope to procure were harder-to-come-by specialties that got me as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. Most unexpected and awesome was the "Triperia," a booth selling nothing but offals and only the oddest animal parts. I stood in front of the captivating landscape of creature features for several minutes, taking it all in: pig and chicken feet, liver and kidneys from all walks of life, stomachs, ears, testicles, and other items unidentifiable. It was a chef's playground, and I only wished we had a few days and a kitchen at our disposal: the fun we would have had!

Snap, crackle, pork!
Battling further digression, we made our way through the market. As we turned a corner, I caught sight of a massive, gorgeous log bearing the unmistakable amber hue of porchetta. A few steps more, and the aroma of pork, herbs, and garlic took hold of my olfactory sense; I could focus on nothing else. As a puddle of drool collected at my feet, Julia ordered, making sure to ask for an extra helping of crispy skin. The Italian cleric behind the counter grabbed a soft, white roll and split it open, slathering golden porchetta juices on both sides, then began shaving thin slices of meat from the behemoth mass. He finished by cracking off several pieces of honey-brown, stained-glass skin, breaking it up on his cutting board before topping off our sandwich. Every single bite was like a visit to church: silence, awe, prayer, and worship intermingling with gratitude and joy. We ate as slowly as possible; mouth-filling richness demanded it. The texture and flavor of the sandwich were equally moving: crispy skin clacked between our teeth, giving way to tender, juicy meat, and soft, yielding bread, our taste-buds all but overwhelmed by the different forms of salty, savory pork. I now understood how this sandwich had made its mark on Julia, and why she'd insisted we come here.

We walked around Florence a bit more, scouring storefronts and window displays for the remaining items on Julia's purchase agenda, without success as of yet. Eventually it became time to head toward our lunch destination, an out of the way trattoria on the other side of the river that Julia had scouted. It was there we were meeting up with Lindsey, another friend of Julia's from her Torino days, and Lindsey's husband, Albert, plus their new baby. Having gone weeks without conversing in English with anyone but each other, we looked forward to the change of pace, and to the social prospect of a communal meal. When all were present and accounted for and warm salutations had been exchanged, we gathered around a cozy table in the corner and Julia went to work, ordering for us all. Having personally lead the charge through Spain, I was happy to sit shotgun in Italy, letting my better half speak the language and take the lead.

As conversation and house wine flowed around the table, the food began to arrive. Plates and spoons clinked and clattered as they worked their way from hand to hand, orchestrating a noisy, delightfully messy ballet. There was pici (an eggless Tuscan pasta like spaghetti, but thicker) in tomato sauce, piled high and generously punctuated by sizable chunks of garlic. The sensation of slurping the fat, chewy noodles was wholly satisfying, in spite of the unavoidable spatter of tomato sauce that ended up around your nose and lips. Half a chicken, seasoned simply, was pulled apart in true family style, reducing its plate to a sparse pile of bones. Roasted potatoes accompanied the bird, uncomplicated, hearty, and tasty, while separate plates of artichokes, fennel, and arugula with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano were combined into a salad and doused liberally with vibrant, piquant olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Sharing the love.

For a little extra comfort, a bowl Tuscan Ribolita with its pleasantly thick, bready texture and dark, leafy greens, that tasted as homemade as anything I've ever eaten in a restaurant. But for me, the true star of the table was the Trippa alla Fiorentina (tripe, Florence style), another shining example of transcendence achieved through otherwise common ingredients. One would not expect much from cow stomach, a handful of herbs, some chicken broth, and a few vegetables; yet when put together by the right hands, and with the right technique, the result can taste like a bowl full of love. With a texture all its own (think succulent, cooked chicken skin) and flavors that come straight from grandma's kitchen, tripe done right is a beautiful thing. I gobbled up the pile in front of me and shamelessly went back for more until the plate was clean.

After lunch we found some gelato (which is never not delicious), and strolled around the city a bit more, working off our meal and perusing souvenirs to take home to friends and family. When it was time to bid goodbye to our new friends, Julia and I continued the search for her boots, ultimately finding them mere minutes before our shuttle arrived to take us back to the hotel. After a little downtime in the room, we returned to the hotel restaurant for dinner, our sights set on another Tuscan classic: Bistecca Fiorentina, the T-bone steak of jaw-dropping proportions.

T is for 'tasty.'
Surprisingly, we opted to go with a repeat of the night before and begin with the prosciutto and mozzarella crostone. Though menu repeats are a rarity for us, the appeal of this particular gem was too great to pass up, and as our teeth sank into supple mozzarella and meat once again, we knew we’d made the right choice. Aware that our meat course was to be ample, we shared a plate of porcini ravioli next, the artistry and pleasure of the pasta no less glee-inducing than before. When it came time for the main event, our waiter brought the steak out whole, allowing us to marvel at its size and beauty, before slicing portions for us. I whispered an inquiry to Julia, wondering if he would be leaving the bone; to my delight, he placed it on its own plate and set it beside me, suppressing a smile as I eyeballed it ravenously. There’s just something about meat bones that brings out the id in me, perhaps a result of my fifteen years locked in vegetarianism.

The steak was all we’d hoped it would be: flavorful, tender, and just bloody enough. As I look back on the process of eating it, I can’t help but recall John Candy in The Great Outdoors, taking down “The Old 96er.” And while our chop wasn’t quite the monster John’s was, my romantic mind will always think fondly on it as equally sizeable. The grilled vegetables that accompanied did so aptly, the radicchio being particularly memorable: a far cry from the tongue-stinging chicories I have come to expect in the states, it was pleasant, its flavor actually existing beyond simply ‘bitter.’ Better stated, its flavor actually existed.

We passed on dessert, as the steak had been more than enough to leave us full. To our surprise, however, the chef sent out a small plate of biscotti and a glass of Vin Santo into which to dip them. We turned our heads toward the kitchen and saw him smiling; he acknowledged us, watching with obvious pleasure as we enjoyed his gift. On our way out of the restaurant we stopped to thank him, and after a bit of conversation that eventually revealed our profession, he invited us into the kitchen for a look. We marveled at its cleanliness and delighted in poking around an environment familiar, yet foreign, talking shop with the soft spoken but gregarious chef. In our element, we were reminded of the wonderful connections that flourish among cooks and within kitchens, capable of traversing language barriers and international boundaries. Our new friend bid us goodnight and safe travels with classic Italian effusiveness, and we retired for another night of satiated sleep.

The following morning, our excitement was palpable. Julia was feeling butterflies as we prepared to return to San Miniato, a place and time in her life that had affected her deeply, both as a chef, in skill and technique, and as a human, in self-reliance. I was experiencing similar emotions, though my thoughts were focused on one thing and one thing only: truffles. The very idea that we might be able to purchase and cook with white truffles, was almost too incredible to be true. Though I had certainly eaten my share in restaurants, and gotten my hands on plenty while working, I had certainly never called any my own, due to both their rarity and their typically exorbitant cost.

Case in point: I remember one Thanksgiving, shopping at a gourmet grocery store in Maryland that happened to be selling a very limited supply of truffles, at the literally unbelievable price of $10.99 a pound. I could barely contain my excitement: truffles for Thanksgiving, what a treat! “How is it possible,” I asked the clerk, “that they’re so inexpensive?” He looked puzzled for a moment, then realization dawned on him and he started belly-laughing. Apparently, I had misread their price, fabricating a decimal point in my mind out of sheer (and silly) hope. The actual price of the truffles was $1,099 a pound.

Indecent exposure?
As our train pulled in to San Miniato, rain had begun to fall. Once again, we felt undeterred: all the truffle booths promised to be tented (Julia assured me she had observed as much when she’d visited years earlier), and if anything, the rain would thin the crowds at the otherwise crowded festival. As we waited for a taxi in the bar at the base of the mountain, Julia bought us a couple of sandwiches. During the majority of the year, said sandwiches would have been pretty ordinary; but during these special months, in this special place, everything gets a little fairy dusting of truffles, and the sandwiches were no exception. Prosciutto cotto was replaced by truffled prosciutto cotto, and ham and cheese became ham and cheese with truffle mayonnaise. We took little for granted and grinned like idiots as we chomped our sandwiches. I dared not use a napkin, lest I waste the precious delicacy, and instead wiped the mayo from my face with a greedy finger, licking it clean and barely believing the blessed circumstance: this was nothing compared to what was in store.

We arrived to our ‘agriturismo’ a bit distressed, as the rain continued to fall, that its proprietor was nowhere to be found. After a bit of minor fretting, Julia performed some light breaking and entering, found a phone, and eventually procured his arrival. A few hours and a couple of showers later and we were right as rain (yes, pun intended), refreshed and ready for dinner. A short cab ride later, we had arrived at Pepenero.

Everything looked just as we remembered it, and after being seated at our table, we headed to the kitchen to say hello to Gioberto and Salvatore, chef and sous-chef, respectively, and Julia’s former mentors. They embraced us like family, chattering excitedly about our return and the meal to come. I was able to pick up bits and pieces of their colloquial Italian, and Julia filled in the blanks when necessary. As food orders started to come in, they offered more hugs and wished us “Buon Apetito.” It was time to eat.

First up was the amuse bouche: creamy, dreamy leek soup beside a black sesame puff pastry. The soup warmed our insides, obliterating the rain outside from our memories and pressing reset on the day. It never ceases to amaze me how wonderful a good soup can make you feel (even an amuse-sized portion), and I wondered if the rain had inspired the chef’s choice, or if it was just fortunate circumstance. Either way, we were content as could be, the stage set for the meal to follow.

Enough is never enough.
Next came our first courses: beef carpaccio for Julia and buffalo mozzarella-stuffed squid for me. When our server set the carpaccio on our table, my jaw literally fell open. There was more shaved truffle on the dish than I had ever seen on one plate; it almost entirely covered the beef, mingling with parmesan like it was no big deal, yet offering aromas that were a very, very big deal. Julia offered me bite after bite, generous soul that she is, and each made my heart flutter. It occurred to me that the menu's description ought to have presented the beef as minimal, nigh inconsequential: the truffles were the dominating star, in quantity and in flavor. I thought to myself: This would never happen in the states.

My calamari was no slouch, oozing liquid mozzarella all over the place that mingled with a delicate broccoli puree. But if I’m being honest, it didn’t hold a candle to Julia’s truffle-laden beef. She admitted to knowing exactly what to order, having worked at Pepenero during the season and remembering the majority of the restaurant’s go-to items. Considering our unspoken restaurant rule against ordering the same dish in any given course, I had a feeling I was in store to feel more jealousy than just my present portion.

"On top of spaghettiiiii…"
I was right. Julia’s next course was about a simple as it gets, and yet it was one of the most delicious plates I have ever encountered. Even now, weeks later, I can see, taste, and smell it as if it were right below my nose: handmade tagliatelli, tossed in butter and covered in (yet again) an obscene quantity of shaved white truffle. Eating it was like briefly dying, glimpsing heaven, and returning to earth once each bite was finished. The texture itself was particularly whimsical: pasta of perfect firmness mingled with impossibly delicate truffles that cracked like dragonfly wings between your teeth. As I pilfered bite after bite from Julia’s plate, I wondered how we got so lucky.

And to think: a pig found these.
This course, my plate stood up to my wife’s with a bit more clout than the last: tortellini packed with parmesan cream in a black truffle sauce and buried under a pile of shaved black truffles. I regressed to a childlike state as I slowly ate the tortellini, gleefully poking each with my fork and watching the molten parmesan begin to flow out before mopping up sauce and popping the succulent morsels in my mouth, biting down to release a proper river of flavor onto my taste-buds. The sensory experience was downright exciting: temperatures and textures wavered, rising and falling in crescendos that made my eyelids quiver with delight. I reflected: little more than flour, water, cheese, and a particular tuber resided on my plate. And yet the technique and vision of a few special people transformed them into something transcendent. God bless Italy.

Doesn't it look like the best candy bar ever?
Our final savory courses centered on pork, though represented in markedly contrasting preparations. Julia’s was truffle braised pork loin, accompanied by an ethereal celery root and potato milleifoillie, and topped with (what else?) shaved white truffle. My plate, as visually striking as it was tasty, was centered around a hearty chunk of roast suckling pig, its scored skin flawlessly crispy with a deep honey hue. After a moment of reverence, I tore the trophy apart, making sure to disperse the riches of crackling skin around my plate in order to lace every bite of juicy pork with that unmistakable, soul-tingling crunch.

Though we had little room for dessert, we knew we weren’t likely to make it back to Pepenero until an essentially diabetic age, so we made a selection that involved mascarpone and amaretto crust. As the plate was set before us, it resembled a cheesecake topped with one precious gooseberry. On bringing first bites to our lips, however, we could think of no better way to describe it than a deconstructed cannoli. Creamy mixed with crumby, sweet with nuances of punchy tang, it disappeared far faster than we expected it to. As we waited for our taxi, we shared a glass of Vin Santo before returning to the kitchen to thank and bid farewell to Gioberto and Salvatore, promising to stop by the following day when we returned to San Miniato for the truffle festival.
Imagine our surprise when a tiny comet landed on our dessert!

Schiacciata: hard to spell, easy to eat.
The next day began with the usual (first) breakfast of pastries, meats and cheeses at the hotel, but initial stop in San Miniato was to be a small, family-run café that we knew to serve an absolutely fantastic schiacciata (say it with me: “skya-CHA-ta”) topped with pancetta, rosemary, Fontina cheese, and potato. Schiacciata, whose name literally means ‘squashed,’ is a classic Tuscan flatbread somewhere between pizza and focaccia. This one in particular had convinced me, all those years ago, that the otherwise counterintuitive (for me at least) combination of starch on starch could, indeed, be delicious. We returned to the café to find that our beloved schiacciata had changed very little, much to our delight. We ordered a couple of slices, and as we sat in the tiny, bustling shop savoring our scrumptious second breakfast, the owner, a portly, jolly man with a bulbous nose and tousled white hair, recognized Julia (she had been a regular while living in San Miniato) and came over to say hello. They chatted for a few moments, laughing and catching up, and before he returned to the kitchen he brought over some tasty gifts: made from rich chocolate and mixed nuts, the sweets were like a cross between fudge and brownies, firm in our hands but melting in our mouths. We thanked him effusively on our way out, the velvety chocolate still clinging to our tongues and lingering inside our cheeks.

I'm calling it 'Tuscan Toothpaste.'
Completely fueled for the day (how many carbohydrates can you count?), we descended on the numerous tents set up around town, Julia guiding me like a wide-eyed, wonder-filled puppy on a leash. Thank goodness for that, as her restraint was all that kept me from emptying my wallet to the myriad vendors we encountered. There were salumerias offering truffled salamis and meats of every shape and size, along with truffled porchetta the size of wine barrels and even, at one stall in particular, a small mountain of truffled lard: the very epitome of decadence. The truffled cheeses we tasted were all over the spectrum, from creamy, tangy gorgonzola to salty, crumbly local sheep cheese, and everything in between. It was, honestly, a bit overwhelming when it came time to decide what we would be bringing home, and we perused as discerningly as we could, tasting every condiment, deeply inhaling each product’s perfume, and poring over the labels that listed ingredients.

Enough truffles to feed an army; a very, very fancy army.
I could wax poetic for days on the further assortment of all things truffled that delighted our every sense as we wandered though each tent’s hallowed halls. Equally lengthy is the list of purchases we considered for gifts to friends and family, as well as dinner that night. By the end of the day, our bags were filled with truffled honey, truffle butter, a truffle condiment for Thanksgiving mashed potatoes, truffled focaccia, sausage with truffles, several bottles of truffle oil, and the crowned jewel: one ping pong ball-sized San Miniato truffle. I held the dirt-flecked, otherwise unassuming gem to my nose and its earthy, nutty aroma seemed to envelop my head; I inhaled deeply, almost frantically, breathing in its magic like an intoxicant as the rest of the world faded into the background. A truffle slicer was the last necessary purchase, and we were at maximum capacity, ready to make use of our bounty. It was safe to say we had taken full advantage of this blessed opportunity.
Just another day at the market...

For the rest of the afternoon, we lazed about our cozy apartment, depleting a magnum of Chianti Riserva (courtesy of Gioberto), and snacking on pickled garlic and meaty Castelvetrano olives. With an arsenal of Q-tips, I painstakingly cleaned every nook and cranny of the truffle, transforming its surface from mottled gray and brown to pristine beige, the hue of bone beside candlelight in a painted still-life. Never in my life had I reveled so in the minutiae of preparing a foodstuff, taking nothing for granted amidst the gift of its experience. It’s not every day you get to clean your very own white truffle.
When clean foods give you dirty thoughts...

In Italy, this is a small serving of pasta.
For dinner, Julia cooked fresh, handmade pasta and tossed it in butter, finishing our bowls with every last bit of the fragrant tuber, sliced impossibly thin, to the point that I thought they might dissolve into the pasta. Every bite was a gift, eliciting incredulous, joyous laughs and eyes shut tight in an effort to better hone our relevant senses. I split open the truffled sausages next, spilling their contents into a waiting pan and adding thinly sliced red onion and chunky, springy Porcini mushrooms. I also threw in some spinach, ever craving a serving of vegetables (which, in a small mountain village approaching winter, were expectedly hard to come by). By the time the food had run its course, we were emptying the last drops of Chianti from the bottle, satiated and glowing from the exceptional meal (splitting a Magnum of wine probably helped our glow as well).

By late morning the following day, we were back at the train station, our suitcases considerably heavier from the spoils of the Truffle Festival. San Miniato had provided an exceptional (and aromatic) stay, one that I would think on fondly for a very long time. But it was time to say goodbye to Tuscany and head south, my mind already swimming with thoughts of gooey, melted cheese pooled inside a char-flecked crust. We were off to Naples, the birthplace of pizza!

It was to be my Graceland.

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