I can't say it's a
– but it happens too
frequently to be
accidental. At some
point between the
and the winter
solstice, I get to Italy. Not on a whim:
the trip needs lots of organisation.
Not every year; as many as I can
manage. Perhaps I'm not being honest.
There is a reason.
Wine is of course the notional draw:
some new piece of research beckons.
Italian wine is the greatest educational
challenge in my field of endeavour,
and I still don't know the half of it.
That's the sharpest spur to journalism:
telling a newly grasped story for the
Something else is happening, though;
something slower, more intricate and
far, far more significant. As the light
fades, the fungi fruit. Some above
ground, in the dark air and the damp;
some underneath, wedged between
soil-stained limestone and unyielding
oak-tree roots. I'm not saying which is
best, since my relationship with the
notion of 'best' is a vexed one, but ... if
you want to eat white truffles (Tuber
magnatum), then the last quarter of
the year is the time to go.
This time I was in Montalcino, trying
to get to know Brunello a little better.
Truffle snobs would always go to
Piedmont, of course, and in a way
they're not wrong: that's where you
find the kind of truffles which can
perfume an entire restaurant on their
own, even when hidden underneath
a glass cloche. Tuscany has Tuber
magnatum pico, a stealthy little
brother or sister. Indeed the commune
of Montalcino has recently acquired
a new frazione (hamlet) called San
Giovanni d'Asso, well-known for its
If you have a white truffle of some
sort, the best thing to do with it in the
kitchen is as little as possible. Happily,
this chimes with Italian culinary
thinking, which accepts that simplicity
is always superior to complication.
(This notion, for better or worse, is
quasi-heretical in France.)
In one restaurant, I asked the best way
to eat white truffle there. 'With our
special fettuccini carbonara,' the
waitress said. 'Special in what way?'
'There's no bacon.' I could have kissed
her. A classic carbonara is made with
guanciale (cured pig's cheek, diced and
fried) or pancetta. The notion that
'special' might mean excluding the key
ingredient was exquisitely Italian.
When the dish arrives, the flakes of
truffle drape the mound of pasta in
stylish confusion. Their scent is
disconcerting, fascinating, intimate,
somehow androgynous. The flavour
is more fugitive: sweetly earthy. The
Brunello in the glass alongside is a
total contrast: dark, ample, urbane.
It's not showy in itself; indeed one
effect of the long ageing in botte
(large oak casks) which most Brunello
undergoes is to round out and soften
its profile. This is the sweetest-fruited
of all great Tuscan red wines, yet
sangiovese's acidity and the timeresolved
tannins bring balance. Dish
and wine together are so satisfying as
to be just a little bit more than
satisfying: faintly indecent. It's not
even ruinously expensive, since
truffles find their way into modest
kitchens as well as grand ones. How
can I not return?