18 OCTOBER 1963, Page 29

Consuming Interest

Trufflesville Regis

By ELIZABETH DAVID ON Saturday morning the entire main shopping thoroughfare of the Pied- montese market town of Alba, in the province of Cuneo, is closed to traffic. The stalls are set up in the middle of the street, the awnings stretch right across it from pavement to pavement. Coming from the big piazza Savona you pass first stall upon stall of clorhes, baleS of cloth, household ware, plastics and, on the ground; huge copper polenta pots. The vegetable, fruit and cheese stalls fill the vast piazza at the far end of the street and ramble right round and to the back of the great red duomo (there are some very remarkable carved and inlaid choir stalls in Alba's cathedral. The artist, Bernardo Cidonio, has created magnificent fruit-wood panels showing the local landscapes, castles and towers, architectural vistas, and still-lives of the fruit and even of the cooking pots of the region. These treasures, dating from 1501, unheralded by guide books, shouldn't be missed).

At this season in Alba there are beautiful

pears and apples, and especially interesting red and yellow peppers, in shape rather like the out- size squashy tomatoes of Provence, very fleshy and sweet, a speciality of the neighbourhood. What we have really come to Alba to see and eat, though, are 'white truffles, and these are to be found in the poultry, egg and mushroom market held in yet another enormous piazza (Alba seems to be all piazzas, churches, red towers and white truffles), and will not start, they say, until nine-thirty. In the meantime there are baskets of prime mushrooms to look at and to smell, chestnut and ochre-coloured funghi porcini, the capes or boletus Midis common in the wooded country of Piedmont, and some fine specimens of the beautiful red-headed amanita ctesarea, the young of which are com- pletely enclosed in the egg-shaped white cocoon or volva which has earned them their name of funghi uovali, egg mushrooms, although in Pied- mont, where everything possible is kingly, the amanita calarea are funghi reali, royal mush- rooms, the oranges considered by some French fungi-fanciers as well as by the Piedmontese to be the best of all mushrooms.

In Piedmont the royal mushroom is most

commonly eaten as an hors-Tccuvre, sliced raw and very fine, prepared only as when you order it. Since few Piedmontese' restaurateurs supply printed menus, expecting their clients to be familiar with the specialities, it is as well for tourists to know that they won't get fungi unless they ask for them. The. basket will then be brought to your table, you pick out the ones You fancy, making as much fuss as possible about the freshness and size, instruct the waiter as to their preparation—funghi porcini are best grilled—and they are charged according to Weight.

As far as the beautiful salad of tangerine- bordered white and cream cross-sections of funghi reali is concerned, normally it is seasoned only with salt, olive oil and lemon juice, but at

this season you have to be pretty quick off the mark to prevent the Piedmontese in general and

the Albesi in particular from destroying this ex- quisite and delicate mushroom (not- found in England) with a shower of tarmfi bianchi.

It is not that the white truffles, which are, not white but putty-coloured, arc not entirely mar- vellous and extraordinary. It is simply that their scent is so overpowering and all-penetrating that nothing delicate can stand up to their assault. The one creation evolved by the

Piedmontese which accords perfectly with the white truffle is the famous fonduta, a dish made from the fat, rich Val d'Aostana cheese called fontina, cut into cubes and steeped in milk for an essential minimum of twelve hours, then cooked, by those very few who have the knack, to a velvety, egg-thickened cream with an ap- pearance entirely guileless until the rain of truffles, sliced raw in flake-fine slivers with a special mandoline-type cutter, descends upon it. There is something about lamina cheese, a hint of corruption and decadence in its flavour which gives it a true affinity with the rootless, mysteri- ous tuber dug up out of the ground.

The black truffles, tuber melanosparum, of r Perigord are, traditionally, sniffed out by pigs. In Provence and the Languedoc dogs are trained to locate and indicate the presence of truffles by scratching the patches of ground which con- ceal them. In Piedmont the white truffle, tuber magnatum, is located in the same way. In the village of Roddi, not far from Alba, there is a training establishment for truffle hounds. Most of the dogs are mongrels. Valuable property, these Bobbis and Lidos, to the farmers and peasants who go about their truffle-digging secretively by dawn light, bearing their little hatchets for ex- tracting the treasure from the earth. No system of truffle cultivation in the technical sense has ever yet been evolved, but according to Professor Gagliardi and Doctor .Persiani* they can be and arc propagated successfully by the reburying of mature truffles and spores close to the lateral roots of oaks and beeches, and in chalky ground with a southerly aspect. In five to ten years the chosen area may or may not yield a truffle harvest. Truffle veins peter out in forty to fifty years; laying truffles down for the future seems to be a sensible precaution.

The season for the true tartufi bianchi is brief. It opens in September. During the second week of October Alba is in full fête with ban- quets, speeches, visiting celebrities and its very own truffle queen. By November the truffles are at their, most potent and plentiful. By the end of January the ball is over.

Visitors staying in rooms on the side of the

Morra family's Hotel Savona in Alba are likely to be wakened early during the truffle season. The Morra canning and truffle paste factory starts up at six in the morning. It is not so much the noise, a very moderate one as Italian noises go, which gets you out of bed as the smell of the truffles being bashed to a paste. emulsified with oil and packed into lobes for a sandwich spread. 'Truffle paste? Is there such a thing?' says the -Cavaliero Roberto Ponzio, whose little shop- window in the main street of Alba is pasted over with newspaper cuttings and announcements to the effect that he is the principe dei tartufi

discreet crown is printed in the corner of his trade card) and somebody is certainly due to succeed the Morra dynasty, still regarded as kings of the Alba truffle domain, even though the Morra manner of running an hotel and restaurant (its Michelin star must be the most misplaced of any in the whole Guide) is not so much regal as reminiscent of a Hollywood gangster-farce. All the same, the Morra truffle paste not only exists but does retain something of the true scent and flavour which tinned whole truffles rarely do.

Contradiction and confusion in all things con- cerning the white truffle are normal in Alba, where the most harmless of questions are met with evasive answers and where, for all the in- formation one would ever be able to extract

from the truffle dealers, the things might be brought by storks or found under gooseberry bushes. In the market there is no display of the truffle merchants' wares. The knobbly brown nuggets are not weighed out and are not even to be seen unless you are a serious customer. Some three dozen silent men in sombie suits stand in a huddle outside the perimeter of the poultry .market. Only if you ask to see the truffles will one of these truffle-men extract from his pocket a little paper- or cloth-wrapped parcel. You buy by nose, and a sound. dry appearance. The cheaper specimens in the market range from 1,200 to 1,500 lire an etto (about 31 oz.) to 3,000 lire for the best.

About the storage of truffles the .Albesi are comparatively communicative, if not very en- lightening. 'What is the best way to keep tar- tufi?' You wrap them in a piece of stuff . . .1 Another dealer interrupts, 'No, you keep theft.' in a jar of rice.-The Cavaliero Ponzio says this is nonsense. Rice, he says, makes the truffles wet, and they must have air. (Nobody here seems to have heard of the bolognesi method of keep- ing truffles dry in sawdust or wood shavings.) The Cavaliero says jauntily that the ones we buy from him will last ten days. They arc packed in tissue paper in four-inch-square packing cases. They have so much air that on the drive back from Alba to Turin we are nearly strangled by the smell. It is glorious, but it is dissipating itself, and the truffles are weakening with every kilo- metre. By the time we get them back to London in three days they will be ghosts. The Cavaliero's ten ,days was a hefty over-estimation, but his recommendation of the cooking at the Buoi Rossi. the unmodernised Piedmontese country- town inn in the Via Cavour, was worth while. In the quiet old courtyard with its characteristic vista of Piedmontese arches and open loft stacked with the copper-red corn cobs, we drank a bottle of red dolcetto, a local wine and a dry and genuine one, and ate some bread and butter spread with truffles. (This is one of the best ways of eating them if you can ever persuade a Pied- montese to allow you such a simple treat) and returned three days running for meals.

The Red Ox is not mentioned in Michelin and is a simple albergo-ristorante where honest, de- cent and cheap food which includes a genuine fondida is to be had. There were also delicious pears baked in their skins and sprinkled with coarse sugar, and fresh, fat fagiali ally regina, oven-cooked. The local wines are all they should be. In typical Italian fashion Rhe paclrona was unable to tell us more about her first-class vintage Barolo than that it comes front her cousin, one Enrico Borgogno, a grower in Barolo itself, and that it was,, she thought, ten years old.

* FUNuIU. TARTUF1. By G. G.e41, i.. i :old 0. Persiani. 1Hoepli, Milan, 1962.)