A couple of weeks ago, desperate for a taste of Central Italy, I bought a black summer truffle at Buon Italia, and scrambled it up with some free-range eggs. I found the taste somewhat disappointing, mild and flinty, though the bargain price of $10 hadn’t been horribly expensive, and it had been a thrill to hold the specimen in my hand. But a few days later, I spied a jar of the more-highly-priced white truffles in the same store, with what looked like an astonishingly expensive price tag: $2,320.00 per pound!
The white truffle, also known as the Alba truffle, is the most highly prized truffle in the world. The truffle represents the fruiting body of a fungus called Tuber magnatum, which is found only in the northern reaches of Italy. It represents something of a holy grail of gastronomy, with a flavor that is earthy, pungent, and delicate all at the same time. While hiking near Rivergaro in northern Italy one day, I’d smelled one of these truffles that was still undergound, and had begun to dig for it like a dog.
Even though the price tag seemed astronomical, a quick calculation revealed that a single white truffle would cost slightly over $100. Of course, even when you pay extra in a fancy restaurant for white truffle, you only get a shaving or two, so having an entire white truffle at my disposal seemed too grandiose to contemplate, and way too expensive, even for an orgasmic culinary treat.
But if I could organize a group of subscribers, it might just be do-able. Accordingly, yesterday I formed a syndicate consisting of myself and three friends, and we split the cost of a single white truffle. It set us back $116, which works out to $29 per person. I also bought a quarter kilogram of the best northern Italian butter, which comes from the same cows whose milk is used to make gorgonzola. A bicycle ride to Raffetto’s yielded a pound of freshly made fettucine. (As with any sort of truffle, your options for eating it are extremely limited, since you want to create a perfect showcase for the tuber. Garlic or other strong flavorings are entirely out of the question.)
The meal began with a salad of farmers’ market greens and hothouse cherry tomatoes in a light mustard vinaigrette. We drank a Cab from California that the hostess had on hand. As we were forking up the last splendid morsels, the water had come to a boil in a huge stockpot on the stove. I leapt up and threw in the egg fettucine. The pot immediately returned to a boil (that’s the virtue of cooking pasta in a pot much bigger than you think you need). In two minutes exactly, the pasta was done, and dumped in a collander.
I unwrapped the Italian butter and used all of it on the pasta, then served the fettucine onto four plates. As I served each plate, I shaved a quarter of the white truffle over each, then tossed the truffle a bit with the pasta, making sure to crush one or two of the slices to bring out the odor and allow the flavor to mix with the butter. I tossed on some French sea salt and the entree was ready.
Eating the white truffle constituted a culinary high point of the season, and the entire meal (we finished up with some baba au rhum and strong coffee) cost considerably less than, say, dinner in a bistro.
Scratch and sniff!
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 19, 2009