My search for authentic truffle recipes, not found on the Internet nor in cookbooks, brings me to some inspiring places. Here, in the heartland of truffle culture, in the Central Apennines, I knew I would find something special because this is the only place where truffles can be eaten fresh all year round. There are nine types of truffles indigenous to this mountain area and they are harvested at different times of the year.
I ventured to Ascoli, to meet a chef of a restaurant, known for its use of fresh wild truffles.
Famed as the most beautiful Renaissance city after Florence, it comes as no surprise that Ascoli abounds with stunning architecture. Ascoli's timelessness is heightened by the central area being traffic free, with no traces of tourism and sometimes with hardly any commerciality. When we passed along a street with the oldest shops - the bottega - nothing had changed outwardly except more contemporary signage.
'Everyone stops to take photos here,' one of my Ascolani hosts commented.
We were descending the hill on Via Pretoriana and the palaces on either side of the cobblestone walkway frame a view of mountains rising up from the river, encrusted in vines and olives with green-grey leaves on this Febuary day. The pedestrians were dressed in Brueghel type browns, black or grey creating timeless silhouettes, as though we were walking through a living museum. Ascoli has a particularly ancient lineage. While Tuscany was under Etruscan influence, Ascoli was inhabited by Greeks from the area of Crete, although the city existed long before their arrival. At this time the city was called Askilaioi, and the Ascolani today are their descendants, who later formed the Piceni tribe.
The chef was surprisingly young. It is perhaps fitting that Riccardo lives in the mountains where truffles are particularly prevalent. Like many people here, he and his father have a truffle plantation. While he doesn't hunt truffles in the wild, many of his friends do and he's grown up in this truffle culture.
'To be honest,' Riccardo said, 'I wasn't amazing at school. But I'm good with my hands. When I first started working in a kitchen, I knew nothing. But I learned fast... In the beginning I wanted to be a cook so I could travel. I wanted to work and live in different places. That hasn't happened,' he laughs. 'It doesn't matter now. I'm happy here. About truffles, what do you know? Tell me everything you want to know.'
One reason why few cooks in Ascoli use fresh truffles is because up-market restaurants like 'Desco' where Riccardo works only have a few covers at lunch and a modest number of clients in the evening. Partly this is a result of a small population, lack of tourism and a recession. Since fresh truffles should not be kept for much more than a week this presents difficulties.
'Not everyone wants to eat truffles all the time,' the restaurant owner Nives relates. 'After we have spent over 100 Euro on a truffle, we often end up eating it ourselves. That's fine now and then, but it adds up. I can't keep them under oil because when a customer orders fresh truffles they want them fresh. Fresh! I've found storing them in a sealed, glass jar filled under uncooked rice works best.'
This ingenious idea solves the problem of having to daily change the tissue or the napkin, which is always put in the sealed jar with the truffle to absorb moisture. The rice absorbs the moisture, covers the truffle, helping it retain its perfume. It may be kept for two weeks depending on how fresh the truffle is.
Thereafter you cook your truffle-flavoured rice.
Most restaurants, even in this area so famous for truffles, use truffle oil or truffle sauce made of chemicals designed to replicate the smell and taste of truffles. While these products dominate the Anglo-Saxon market because they are affordable and Anglo-Saxons are known to like a strong truffle sensation - it seems that now many Italians are becoming the same.
Riccardo explained that since these sauces are everywhere people become accustomed to the artificially created taste. Real, fresh truffles are more delicate. People are sometimes disappointed.
Riccardo has found a healthy solution. By combining indigenous truffles with indigenous porcini mushrooms, growing in the same mountain location, Riccardo creates a more pronounced sensation of truffle. It seems the porcini flavour makes a sonorous backdrop accentuating the taste of the truffle; usually the Black truffle (Tuber melanosporum). It makes it resonate in the mouth.
In this way they are able to use around 3gm of fresh truffle per serving and create a stronger truffle taste than if it were served in abundance without the porcini. Riccardo gives Canadians the recipe he invented (See below).
Nives, the owner of Desco, believes wild truffles are the best. She considers them more pure and she wants mountain products. She explained they source all their vegetables from the mountains because of the pure quality of mountain water. She claims the quality of the water creates better tasting vegetables. When she eats a tomato she can taste if it is grown in the lowlands or the mountains.
What about wines to accompany truffles?
From the mountains and local, comes their reply.
Riccardo is particularly keen on the Pecorino, an autochthonous wine from the Sibillini Mountains. This interesting and now prized white wine was saved from extinction allegedly due to the effort of one wine grower. In fact the last few surviving vines, used to create a new plantation, were found in a mountain village at the southern edge of the Monti Sibillini National Park.
The only truffle Riccardo doesn't use is the Tuber aestivum var. uncinatum Chatin. It is not farmed in this part of Italy and the wild product can vary too much depending on what host tree it is found on, the type of earth, etc. Too often it may not be worth eating. It is fascinating to think this same truffle, the Tuber aestivum var. uncinatum Chatin, is considered highly desirable in France, where it is called the Burgundy truffle and cultivated in abundance. This is further evidence of how the taste of truffles is determined by the natural environment, more than other food products.
Here's Riccardo's recipe for Tagliatelle Funghi e Tartufo, with my comments and adaptions in italics. He hopes you will love it. Buon appetito Canada!
PER 4 PERSONE
- 400 g tagliatelle (home made) - or store bought
- 100 g funghi porcini fresh - you may need to use dried porcini
- 200 g fondo bruno - this is meat stock you will make for which you need 100g of meat, a carrot, celery and onion
- 50 g parsley
- 6 g tartufo nero pregiato (Tuber melanosporum)
- 20 g butter
PER LA CREMA DI CASTAGNE
- 200 g chestnuts
- 500 g milk
Cut the mushrooms into small pieces and prepare as instructed if not fresh porcini. Make a meat stock (fry a piece of meat with celery, carrot and onion, then add the water (220g) and simmer for 2/3 hours). Prepare the chestnut cream by boiling the chestnuts in milk. After cooking the chestnuts till they are soft, blend the mixture with an electric mixer making it as smooth as possible, like a puree.
Now lightly cook the mushrooms in a frying pay with some butter. Boil water in a pot and toss in the pasta. After two minutes remove the tagliatelle from water and put it into the pan with the cooked mushrooms. Now add your meat stock and the rest of the butter.
In a separate pan heat the cream of chestnuts. Chop your parsley quickly.
Serve on the plate, creating a bed with the chestnut cream and above it the pasta with the sautéed mushrooms. Finish with the black truffle shavings and a sprinkling of parsley.
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