There's a kind of left-handed assessment in the State o' Maine that poverty is judged by the number of dogs kept. Ephrum Eels was so poor he had three. It was my excellent fortune once to meet a man who owned a thousand dogs, and a fine surprise to learn he was affluent. It was in New York City that, years ago, I decided on the eggs Benedict and the waiter whispered, ''I'm sorry, sir, but the Plaza has no truffles.''
I had never heard of a truffle, so my best answer was, ''Well, don't let that happen again!'' He assured me the lack was but temporary, and when my little essay titled ''The Plaza Has No Truffles'' appeared in this newspaper, I heard at once from a Mr. Paul Urbani of Trenton, New Jersey, who identified himself as the leading importer and wholesaler of truffles. He wrote me that he had been in touch with the management of the Plaza and the ignominy was at an end. Mr. Urbani enlightened me as to truffles, and when my wife and I went to Europe in 1966 he wrote me a letter to his uncle - Carlo Urbani of Scheggino, in Umbria - who owned a perpendicular domain in the Appennines and was the world's leading trufflist. We drove from Perugia over an incredible mountain road in response to an invitation to take Sunday dinner with the Urbani family in Scheggino.
We had no Italian whatever, and the Urbani family knew no English, so we fumbled awkwardly until Count Carlo came into the room with his hands outstretched and said, ''Vous parlez francais?''m He explained later that the Italian trufflers handle a great many French truffles and the French trufflers in turn handle a great many Italian truffles, that there is no way to tell them apart, so that all Italian and French truffle dealers are bilingual. His French was heavy with an Umbrian cast, so at dinner when he urged us to second helpings he would call, ''Ong-cora!''m My French, typical patois Yankee,m is better called jarrets noirs.m We made out, our deficiencies corrected by shouting, and our afternoon with Uncle Carlo and his family remains a top-notch memory of our European visit.
Scheggino is but a wide place in the narrow road, with a small village behind ancient walls. The Urbani proprietorship is unmistakable. Besides the truffle business - harvesting, processing, and marketing - the family deals in farm machinery, olive pressing, market gardening, banking, and insurance, and I was specially interested in the trout hatchery. A mountain stream cascades in successive pools, as it has for over a thousand years, and a fish manager starts with fry in the top pool and ends with three-pound German browns at the bottom. For hotels and restaurants, and markets. Carlo's thousand dogs were truffle hounds.
The dinner had been suggested, we knew, by Nephew Paul back in New Jersey, and it was intended to illustrate all the uses of truffles in cookery. It went on and on, course after course, and we made the error of supposing the truffled spaghetti, course number three, was the important one. We still had to investigate the uses of truffles with pork, beef, lamb, chicken, and even pheasant - all produced, we were assured, on the Urbani domain. Ong-cora!m
The truffle forms on the fibrous roots of a mountain oak, below ground. The white and the black, different in appearances and uses, grow in the same area, but have different seasons. The truffle is esteemed not for itself, but for the flavor it imparts to other foods. It has never been successfully cultured commercially, but remains a wild fungus acquired by search and seizure. When the animal, either dog or pig, sniffs out a truffle - it has an aroma to which the animals are trained - the animal is restrained and the truffle is dug carefully by hand. Truffles are expensive, and a posh place like the Plaza should never be without. On that Sunday afternoon in Scheggino the truffles expended on our education came to a pretty penny. We returned many a ''Ca suffit!''m and ''Assez!''m to Uncle Carlo's ''Ong-coras,''m and left in late afternoon very full of our subject. We drove a short distance to Terni and took a room at the Hotel de Paris. ''The dining room will open at seven,'' said the clerk.
''Thank you, we shall not be dining tonight,'' I said.
So, I once knew a man who owned a thousand dogs. Just the other day came a card from the Famiglia Urbani. It began, ''E deciduto Carlo Urbani . . .''m