“The most learned men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber and after 2000 years of argument and discussion, their answer is the same as it was on the first day: we do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated and have answered simply…. EAT US AND PRAISE THE LORD.” Alexandre Dumas
Milano – I knew I only had a relatively short time in Italy in which to sample the bounty of the season, which to me, means pumpkin, chestnuts, fresh game, wild mushrooms, Tuscan kale, chicory, beets, pears, winter squashs, and the glittering diamond in the crown of Autumn…Tartufo Bianco D’Alba. This truffle is the fruiting body of a subterranean fungi of the genus “tuber,” and yes, this elusive tuber needs to be sniffed out by pigs and dogs trained for the purpose..Then at last, after being cleaned, polished and sliced paper thin by a special truffle slicer, it can be savored by singers everywhere.
Arriving in MIlano in the early afternoon, I immediately made a reservation at a small trattoria which was recommended to me by the woman who interviewed me about the upcoming Italian Transfer concerts. Al Materel specializes in local Milanese cuisine, a cozy eatery with a warm atmosphere. Two of my traveling compadres were in attendance and we were rarin’ to go. Opening the evening’s show was a 2004 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano,one of oldest and most well-known of Italian wines.It’s primary grape varietal is Sangiovese and it’s from the hilly region around Siena, which would technically make it from Tuscany…..but we were in no mood to stay catholic to the concept of Lombardian singularity. The rest of the meal was a true Milan fest. Il Dottore ordered the Veal Milanese, a dish often butchered in lesser establishments in the US. In a way, this is the Italian version of a good wienerschnitzel -some high quality veal, pounded thin-then I believe the controversy begins…do you dip in flour first and then the egg batter,then the crumbs…or should it be the other way around?? Any way you slice it, this veal was sublime, just served with a wedge of fresh lemon.
Our third companion ordered Osso Buco ,a braised veal shank complete with the marrow,and the traditional accompaniment of risotto Milanese. It was on Miss Eydie’s very first trip to Milan, where she found herself by a stroke of good fortune at a restaurant called Gualtiero Marchesi, where I had the most extravagant risotto imaginable. The saffron colored creamy rice was topped with a square of edible gold.I had never seen anything so over the top in my life as of that point. The only other thing I remember about that dinner was that at the conclusion, as a gift, we were given a bottle of a lurid colored house – made liquer, which I wrapped inside my luggage….and where it promptly exploded on the next flight, staining most of my clothes, indelibly.
But getting back to my original and pure purpose… i awaited my order of fresh tagliatelle with a giddy joy. (or was it the wine…the jet lag?) Speaking of white truffles, again it was Alexandre Dumas who said, “They can, on certain occasions make women more tender and men more lovable.” Hell, yeah.
Finally the moment arrives…and the penetrating, faintly garlicky perfume precedes the dish being placed before me. The pasta is curled up over itself, swathed in a delicate coat of butter and cheese and over the top of the dish, a generous covering of paper-thin slices of the prized truffle. In a culinary swoon, I take the first bite. The pasta “bites back.” The creaminess provides a background color for the earthy, forward flavor of the truffles. I admire their marbled interior with it’s fragile ivory veins. When I’m home, my little bit of luxury involves a small pour of white truffle oil over pasta, vegetables, risotto-but this is my yearly splurge for the real thing-the exalted fungus. Authenticity is what makes something fully and genuinely what it is -whether a person, a style of music or a cuisine. Something is authentic because it can draw on its original authority to make it unquestionably what it is…no fakes, no imitation. I feel that with every bite.