In the Piedmont, the damp forests are brooding and mysterious. Towns such as Serralunga and Barolo stand atop hills which overlook half-hidden, misty valleys.
Here, at certain altitudes only, under certain trees, or within certain unpredictable terrain, a natural mystery takes place in the autumn: the annual spontaneous reappearance of a rare and prized fungus, the white truffle, known in Italian as tartufo.
Truffles grow underground, and although there are a number of varieties, they cannot be cultivated. The two places most famous for them are the Perigord area in France where the blakc truffle is found, and here in the Piedmont.
Here they are found with the help of specially trained dogs, which locate them from the pungent aroma emanating from the ground.
TRuffles reappear in many of the same spots year after year and hunters have passsed along knowledge of these secret spots from generation to generation. Many 'hunt' only at night, in order to guard the secret spots.
Because of their rarity, and the fact that they reappear mysteriously year after year, truffles have been prized since at least the days of the ancient Romans.
The truffle of the Piedmont, however, is quite different from the black truffle of France, which is often found by trained pigs.
Dense, irregular, and pale cream in color, the white truffle of the Piedmont has an intense penetrating aroma and a taste which is almost more a sensation than a flavor.
It is usually eaten raw, shaved into razor thin slices with a special knife. When used as a garnish for hot dishes, it is added at the end of the cooking and is cooked only by the heat of the other food.
It is used in this way in risotto (rice) dishes and as a garnish sprinkled over salami, raw meat, marinated vegetables, salads, and cooked dishes.
Truffles are exciting because of their rarity, and also because they are so outrageously expensive. Generally they are eked out like gold dust, and one can only hope for the slimmest smallest morsel of this culinary treat.
But here during the season from August to the end of january, they are auctioned off by the dozen at occasions which bring together whole towns of people.
Early on the mornings of the auctions the truffle hunters tramp into the town hall to have their truffles weighed, sniffed, classified, and given a base value.
Criteria for grading a truffle are intensity of aroma, color, size, location in which it was found, and smoothness of surface. If a truffle is very irregular, there is too much waste when it is grated into slivers.
Once they are displayed, the entire auction hall takes on an almost overpowering aroma. They range in size from piccoli, weighing only a few ounces , to grande which weigh well over a pound, and are as big as a softball. bidding is fast, and taken very seriously. But afterward the entire town celebrates with a series of feasts making liberal use of this irresistible foodstuff.
Truffles are often sold dried, and in tins and they are sometimes conserved, and made into a paste. Here are a few recipes which are delicious either with or without truffles. Bagna Caoda (Hot Anchovy Dip) 1/2 stick butter 2/3 cup olive oil 5 cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped 8 anchovy fillets, chopped White truffle thinly sliced, or truffle paste (optional)
Heat butter and oil in an earthenware pot until it just begins to foam. Add the garlic and cook gently. Add chopped anchovies and cook over a very low heat stirring constantly until dissolved. Top with sliced truffle.
The sauce is served in the dish in which it has been cooked and kept warm at the table over an alcohol burner.
Serve surrounded by raw vegetables such as sliced artichokes, broccoli, zucchini, sweet peppers, celery, carrot sticks, and anything else in season.
Chunks of bread and breadsticks can also be dipped into the bubbling mixture.
Fonduta is one of the most famous dishes of the Piedmont. It is customarily made with Fontina, which is a fat creamy cheese from the Val d'Aosta. If fontina is not readily available, then substitute Bel Paese or Dolcelatte. Fonduta (Piedmontese Cheese Fondue) 1 teaspoon cornflour (cornstarch) 2/3 cup milk 5 cups finely diced Fontina, Bel Paese, or Dolcelatte cheese 2 tablespoons butter Salt Pinch of white pepper 4 egg yolks White truffle (finely sliced over the cheese mixture)
Mix the cornflour with milk and pour into upper pan of a double boiler. Add cheese, butter, salt, and pepper.
Cook gently, stirring all the time, until cheese melts. Very gradually beat in egg yolks and continue to cook over a low heat until mixture becomes thick and creamy. Pour into an earthenware dish and sprinkle with white truffle.
Serve immediately, over slices of toast, poured over polenta (Italian cornbread), or over riso in bianco (Italian arborio rice cooked in meat broth). Penne al Coccio 4 tablespoons butter 1/4 pound frozen peas 1/4 pound chopped ham or bacon 4 dried porcini mushrooms or 1/4 pound fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced 1 cup fresh cream 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese 3/4 to 1 pound penne or macaroni White truffle (optional) Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Soak mushrooms in tepid water 30 minutes, squeeze dry and chop coarsely. Melt butter in a heavy saucepan and add frozen peas, ham, and mushrooms. Saute gently a few minutes, then add cream. Cook over very low flame.
Meanwhile, cook penne "al dente," and drain. Add pasta to sauce, and cook for 2 minutes more, making sure that all pasta is well coated.
Season with salt and a little freshly ground pepper. Add Parmesan cheese to make a thick, creamy sauce.
Serve in individual terracotta dishes ('coccio' is the name of such a dish), and sprinkle with slivers of white truffle.