Inspiration / Lifestyle & Opinion

Andrew Jefford: An Elegy to an Italian Autumn


Andrew Jefford Andrew Jefford / 24 January 2019

I can't say it's a deliberate, conscious decision – but it happens too frequently to be accidental. At some point between the autumn equinox 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 first time.

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.

White truffles or tartufo bianco to give it its Italian name, are mostly found in the woods and fields of the Piedmont region.

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 white truffles.

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.)

Truffle and Pasta

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?

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