9 November 2008
November is usually truffle time in Tuscany, strange stone like tubers that grow under the ground, have a very pungent smell and a strange taste and are VERY expensive, one that would fit in palm of your hand might costs about £60!
This year we had a special treat; last Sunday with friends and guests we took the old stream train from Siena to San Giovanni d’Asso, the heart of white truffle territory in Tuscany. We arrived at the train station to see the find the engine standing with great billows of black smoke belching from its belly. The platform was bustling with people all very animated shouting and calling over the crowds, waving to friends, picnic baskets packed, cameras hung around their necks. Suddenly attention was called, it was time to board! In true Italian style and total chaos, all the seats had been changed and everyone was seated in the wrong place, others arrived to find their seat had been taken, the conductor was surrounded by clamoring passengers frantically fanning themselves with their train tickets… but finally it was sorted and the whistle blew and slowly we pulled out of the station.
The countryside was shrouded in fog, the heat rising from the freshly plowed fields meeting the cool November air, this coupled with all the smoke from the train curtained the train and hid the views that we longed for. However we were distracted by a sudden burst of a saxophone, we all turned to see a parading band proceeding towards us down the aisle of the train… what a sight… and noise, but such a delight and fun. We were given pots and pans, rattles and maracas to play as the band played on!
The clouds opened to reveal a beautiful day with a bright blue sky framing the beatiful Tuscan countryside, tender shades of green as the new wheat gingerly shows it’s head. Tall cypress trees standing proudly on hill tops denoting one mans land from another. Abandoned and restored farmhouses perched atop hill, rows of autumn vines, leaves turning from green to rust to yellow. Plots of vegetables carefully tended, winter lettuces, fronds of fennel, white heads of cauliflower all to be admired. The train whistled sharply and brought all back to the present… finally we had arrived at San Giovanni. The timing of course was perfect, ready for lunch! We climbed the steep hill from the train station up to the village to get our appetites up. We knew that they were preparing lunch for three hundred and forty people and so were prepared for a bit of a scrum but no such thing. Inside a large marquee were elegrantly set cirucular tables, with gold table clothes and knapkins, ceramic plates and stemmed glasses. The first course arrived, all sorts of crostini; a traditional Tuscan apertizer of little pieces of bread finely sliced and spread with various sauces from liver pate, to mushrooms, sausage and of course truffles. Next came the pasta, first with a truffle sauce, then another with a mushroom sauce… then yet another with a meat sauce. We were already almost full, but certainly not finished, the roasted pork arrived with potatoes and vegetables, although the wine was still flowing fast and furiously the pace of eating has begun to slow, but we had to wait for dessert of crostata, italian jam tart. We were undecided about coffee, we needed to be perked up after eating so much but we didn’t want to miss the truffle fair. We decided that the walk back down the fort where the truffles were closely guarded would suffice on both accounts so heaved ourselves up from our chairs to go.
.. For hunting they use small curly haired dogs and little picks to carefully dig out the truffles once the dogs have sniffed them out, without disturbing the spores. Down in a field nearby there were dog demonstrations. I remembered on one occasion when I went truffle hunting that a dog got into terrible trouble for scoffing down the truffle that had just been found, I’m certain that we guests saved the day and his skin. The hunter was not at all pleased with him!
As we walked thru’ the village we stopped at the various stands to admire artisan work of beautifullly painted ceramics, locally produced honey from the acacia, chesnut and rhodendrum trees. There were samples of salami, ham, oil and various other delacies but we just had to pass on them still too full from our lunch.