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I first encountered truffles last summer -- after reading about them, wondering about them, gazing at the listings in food catalogues and wincing at their cost, occasionally sprinkling some drops of truffle oil onto a dish of rice -- when I spent a couple of weeks at a writers' conference in Italy. The conference took place in Spoleto, a small medieval town circling a mountaintop, a place of ancient buildings and ubiquitous religious iconography that was blissfully innocent of supermarkets, strip malls and chain stores.
On my first evening in Spoleto, I stopped at a shop for bread and cheese, and there they were. Truffles. Black, dusty-looking fungal balls spread on a tray in careless profusion. People say summer truffles lack pungency; these didn't. Somehow their scent managed to suffuse not only that little shop, but my entire stay in the town.
We sat in classes with Marie Howe and learned something profound and inarticulable about the poet's voice. We listened as poet, essayist and novelist Rosellen Brown explained the importance of exploring different writing genres. We sat in the courtyard of the convent where we were housed and scribbled furiously, coming up with concepts, jokes, descriptions and word combinations that utterly surprised us. We wandered the streets, admired the local cathedral, drank bellinis, laughed our way through beginning Italian classes. Every evening we bought cones of that miraculous Italian gelato, selecting from a rainbow of colors and flavors. We slipped slices of salami to the thin gray kitten that played in the street outside the convent and worried about how he'd survive the winter.
I bought a white paper bag containing a few truffles and, having no access to a kitchen, kept them in a drawer in my room, nibbling at them daily. Their scent filled my nostrils as I lay on the bed, struggling through an article in an Italian magazine about the royal family and wondering how the Queen Mother had come to marry a sofa.
At restaurants around town, we found crisp, thin-crusted pizza adorned with truffle slices, brie studded with truffle bits and wrapped in puff pastry, even the soft tartufo ice cream. One afternoon, fellow student Anny Jones and I took a train to the nearby town of Trevi to see an olive-oil museum. An old lady across from us pulled a sandwich from her overstuffed bag and begun munching. "Anny," I whispered, as that unmistakable scent crept across the carriage, "she's eating truffles."
Last month, nostalgic for Spoleto and after a great deal of dithering about the extravagance of the deed, I bought two black truffles for $65, sent overnight by oregonwhitetruffles.com. These are cultivated fungi, not quite as aromatic as European truffles. In fact, purists don't consider them the real thing. Nonetheless, the first disappeared within days: I shaved it over a bowl of pasta tossed with garlic and olive oil; used it to complement the oyster, hedgehog and shiitake mushrooms in a silky flan I prepared for my daughter; scattered pieces over an omelette. I froze the second truffle. It's still in the freezer. Sometimes I lie awake at night acutely aware of its presence there, plotting truffle dishes, deciding which friends should be invited to share them, yearning to hold that truffle in my hand again and inhale its scent.
Truffles get under your skin. Once you're hooked, you long for them the way Romeo longed for Juliet, the way shipwreck survivors dream of fresh water. It's sometimes hard to explain this to others -- particularly since normal people often react to their first whiff of truffle by wrinkling their noses and uttering exclamations of disgust.
The Fourth Story's Christopher Cina understands the romance of truffles. He remembers his first taste, in 1990, when he was a student at the Culinary Institute of America. Although he sometimes uses black truffles, he's especially fond of the even more expensive and aromatic white ones that come from Alba, Italy, in the fall. When they arrive, he says, "it's like Christmas. You've spent so much, and you've waited so long. You take a lot of care with what you do with them.
"Some of the cooks in my kitchen are very young, and they've never seen a real white truffle," he continues. "They'll just be amazed. They always make that face first -- kind of scrunch it up like it smells dirty." He laughs. "It's a bit of an acquired taste."
Cina keeps his truffle dishes simple. "You don't want to mess with those too much," he says. For his customers, he makes a risotto with parmesan cheese and butter and shaves the truffle over it. Sometimes he takes a piece of truffle home and eats it with scrambled eggs and parsley. He expects to get truffles at a far better price after he leaves Denver at the end of May for a new post cooking at the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland. "It'll be a perk," he says. (Cina hopes to return to Denver in a year or so to start his own place.)
For Charles Dale of Aspen's Renaissance Restaurant, it's the black truffles from Périgord that create excitement. He likes to stuff a salmon with them and slow-roast it until their scent suffuses the flesh. He's less keen on the smaller gray truffles available in summer: "You pay something like $125 a pound, and there's no real aroma to it," he says." You have to fortify it with black truffle oil."
Dale attributes the truffle's legendary status to its scarcity and also to the fact that it's "so aromatic and unique. There's nothing else on the planet like a truffle," he says, "and it's not cultivatable. It's one of those wonders of nature." Ginger and black peppercorn enjoyed similar status until people learned to cultivate them, he points out.
The truffle is the underground fruit of a plant that consists of a web of fine filaments, or mycelium. These bond with the roots of certain trees -- notably oak, hazelnut and linden -- in an astonishing symbiosis called a mycorrhizal relationship. The truffle filaments become extensions of the tree's roots, helping the tree draw minerals from the earth. In turn, the tree's leaves nourish the truffle plant. It's this complex relationship that's so difficult for would-be cultivators to duplicate.
Pigs, dogs and goats are used to find the precious morsels. Some twenty years ago, Radek Cerny, now chef/owner of Papillon, watched a pig hunting truffles in France. He describes the handlers holding down the 200-pound sow and wrestling away the truffle -- and then slipping her a piece. "The pig needs to get some reward," Cerny observes. "Or maybe next time she'd say, "Hey, no more.'"
What makes the pig such an avid truffle hunter? In a word, sex. Truffles produce a chemical that's also present in boar saliva and that prompts mating behavior in the sow. And why are we humans so crazy for the stuff? Uh, same reason. The chemical also exists in male underarm sweat. (Truffles, by the way, are loaded with glutamic acid, the primary component of that elusive fifth taste, umami.)
The beauty of truffles lies in the paradox they offer: They may be a luxury food, but they ground us, too, reminding us of the earth and uniting us with something primal. There you sit in an elegant restaurant, unfolding your snowy napkin as the assiduous waiter hurries to your table carrying a dish of gnocchi or risotto, salmon or perfectly prepared medallion of duck. And the thing that makes this dish so utterly sumptuous, the thing that drives the cost clear through the roof, is a garnish that sends pigs into sexual ecstasy.