Thursday, November 24, 2011

Truffles, San Miniato & More Truffles

       "Hey, Carly--we will be covering a truffle festival this month at the hilltop town of San Miniato."
    This elicited a puzzled look on photographer Carly's face, close to a pout.  No comment was forthcoming, however, until the day before our adventure in the company of truffle festival veteran Rita Kungel and friend Gabrielle Taylor.
     Carly finally confessed:  "I thought you were talking about chocolate truffles.  Why would there be a festival just on chocolate truffles?"

Above is a bowl of chocolate hazelnut truffles from our favorite Florentine chocolate shop, Vestri.  
     Some one else in the office said "what does the church of San Miniato have to do with truffles?"  (NB, the Romanesque church of San Miniato with its 12th & 13th century architecture,  Renaissance art works and a birds-eye view of Florence is located above Piazzale Michelangelo).

"No,"  the hilltop town of San Miniato is located on the way to Pisa.  And the surrounding countryside, stretching from San Miniato to Montaione and Castelfiorentino is where the prized white truffle is hunted every autumn by specially trained dogs."

Carly, Rita, Gaby and myself saw the real deal depicted above a stand at the actual San Miniato truffle festival, which is always held on the last three weekends of the November.  The truffle portrayed is larger than any we actually saw while there.

What is a non-chocolate truffle?  It is a fungi that grows underground in a symbiotic relationship with a tree (see the trees behind the above hunter?).

To add to the confusion, one of the first stands we happened upon at the San Miniato festival was a showcase for a
 local chocolate shop.

When we asked for chocolate truffles to photograph, the owner brought out a tray of  truffle-flavored candy truffles selling at 1 euro per piece.  Delectable is too modest a word for the experience--as the chocolate taste disappeared, the flavor of nature's truffle lingered at the back of my throat.  We were treated, sparingly of course, and the obliging owner cut one open for us to take a picture.

The inside of the chocolate treat was as pale as the actual tartufo bianco di San Miniato-- the white San Miniato truffle--that we later admired at stands in a tented area at the fair.

Due to the exquisite flavoring and rarity value, the price quoted to us was 220 euros per etto (100 grams), i.e. 3.5 ounces!

Also available was a selection of truffle-flavored butters (as a pasta condiment) and fresh cheeses studded with pieces of truffle.

We saw people buying truffles, which were weighed and the price quoted before their eyes.  At one stand, smaller truffles at more economical prices were displayed as an enticement to the
 potential buyer.

Having seen with her own eyes that there are truffles beyond chocolate truffles, Carly tasted a sliver of truffled cheese, and decided to take some home.  At this point, Gaby, Rita, Carly and myself wanted to indulge in a truffle-themed meal (why else had we come?)

Having decided to do this excursion on the Thursday before the Sunday that we went, I was in a panic about reserving the restaurant, whether we would find a place.  Rita sent me several suggestions.  I looked at one "Upupa," recognizing that as a name of bird and made a quick decision to go with that.

Knowing it was a desperate feat to book a table during a festival with such late notice, I called the "Upupa" and spoke to the owner Roberto, saying "I am a journalist, I am not looking for a free meal or a discount but a free table."  Roberto had reserved a table for four at noon ("not a minute later.")  I was relieved, and said "afterwards if there is anything else we need to see, we will avoid the crowds as all Italians will be having lunch at the same time--1 pm of course--(see the Day of the Dead post).

When we went looking for the  "Upupa" restaurant, feeling like Cinderellas with a noon, not a midnight deadline, we found it thanks to the sign (see above).  I'll be darned, I thought the word translated as woodpecker, which it does not--it is the Hoopoe bird.

Carly later looked up this bird on the Internet where, among other things, it was identified as the national bird of Israel.  Despite this fact, the Upupa restaurant has Tuscan cuisine with of course a truffle menu; it is a tiny place with seating for 20 and Roberto, the owner, is in the kitchen.

When I asked him why he gave the restaurant the name, he said, "that what it was called when I purchased it last year, so I just kept the name."  Roberto, a Florentine born on via degli Alfani, is a dedicated foodie who has been in the restaurant business as long as he can remember, including many years at the Gilli caffé in piazza della Repubblica.

Now, on to the food.  This is worthy of an entire blog post, but suffice to say that we enjoyed the truffle menu and even received a bit of a discount on the bill (the perks of the trade).  Gaby and Carly ordered the classic tagliatelline al burro e tartufo bianco (thin egg noodles sauced with hot, melted butter and truffle shavings).

Well, it was 25 euro but very truffle-y.  Our dining companions assured us it was worth every bite.

After lunch, Rita wanted to see the Duomo, the Cathedral, where a WWII tragedy had taken place that inspired the Taviani brothers' film Le Notti di San Lorenzo.  

The retreating Germans
 has ordered that inhabitants take refuge in the church.
 The Americans were bombing the vicinity and a stray Allied shell entered a window,  ricocheted off a stone relief
and exploded, killing 55 civilians.  This quiet sanctuary
shows no lingering signs of the massacre,
 which took place on July 22, 1944.

We went into the nearby Cathedral Museum seeking the art work involved in the incident.  The custodian, who later identified himself as Francesco, immediately demanded an entrance fee x four.  "I am a journalist," I said, digging into my bag for my press pass although I was certain I had left it in Florence (which I had).  I pointed to Rita and explained her mission.  Francesco paused, and in the true Italian art of arrangiarsi (of getting by), peered at an (attractive) Rita and asked tactfully "are you a senior citizen?"  Mindful that she had passed as a senior citizen in Greece (defined at 55), she answered yes and went in and look at the art work.  Francesco turned his back and we followed her.

"See," I said, "neither the angel Gabriel nor Mary were harmed.  That's what comes of having God on your side."  The caption identified the work as a 1274 Annunciation by Giroldo da Iacopo da Como.
Makes sense when you take into account that the 13th century Duomo was built on the site of an earlier church dedicated to the Annunciation.

We thanked Francesco and went on our way.  Rita, however, wanted to see the plaques in memorial to the victims of the fatal accident.  For many years, the Nazis were blamed...

then proof was uncovered that 
it was a misguided Allied shell.  

At least equal time was given to opposing viewpoints....

There would be much more to write, and someday I will.  Suffice it to say that at 3 pm, while all the Italian were arriving in swarms, Rita, Carly, Gaby and myself decided to return to Florence.  We left the medieval town to catch to catch the shuttle bus down to the lower, modern part of the town, San Miniato Basso, where Rita's car was parked. 

On the outskirts of the festival, as at every festival in Tuscany, there were street vendors with food specialities.  As we were truffled-out, some of us purchased the original Italian candy bar--nuts covered in molten chocolate which slowly hardens (this was the work of a candyman from Lamporecchio, near Vinci, Leonardo da Vinci's hometown).

So much for truffles (chocolate), San Miniato and truffles.  See you same time next year for a festival update!
Si, we are going back...

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