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Can There Be Too Many Truffles?

January 06, 1999|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Lord's Porridge." That's what my favorite Los Angeles restaurateur calls my favorite Italian food--risotto with white truffles. So imagine my delight when I found myself on assignment last fall in Piedmont--in Alba itself!--at the beginning of white truffle season. Best of all, I was interviewing--which meant eating with--winemakers and other wine personages who were well-known in the region's restaurants.

We had truffles every day, for lunch and for dinner, often shaved over three or four or five courses at each meal. There were truffles shaved over raw veal and truffles shaved over fried eggs, truffles shaved over agnolotti pasta and truffles shaved over tajarin (Piedmontese tagliolini), truffles shaved over polenta and truffles shaved over fonduta. Most of the pastas we had were accompanied by nothing but truffles. No sauce, no oil--just pasta and truffles.

And not the parsimonious shaving of truffles one generally encounters in Italian restaurants in the United States. No, we got so many truffles that most of the time, I couldn't even see what was underneath.

But there was one thing missing. I never was served risotto with white truffles, not once in 11 meals in Piedmont.

Puzzled, I finally asked one chef about what seemed to me a curious oversight.

Well, the chef explained, "risotto isn't a true Piedmontese dish."

(Not everyone seemed to agree with that answer, but as both an invited guest and a non-chef, wasn't about to argue.) I would survive anyway.

Survive? I was in gustatory heaven. Every restaurant I walked into was redolent of white truffles, perhaps the single most pungent, intoxicating, sensual aroma on the planet. Open the door, inhale--and, bliss. Then one day, the son of the chef where I was having lunch greeted me with a big smile.

"Wait till you see this truffle," he said. He retreated to the kitchen and emerged moments later holding a truffle bigger than my fist. "It's 330 grams," he said--a fraction less than three-quarters of a pound. Wow!

"Is that the biggest white truffle in history?" I asked, my manifest ignorance once more abundantly on display.

"Not even close," he said, and he proceeded to tell me that it was a tradition in Alba to send the biggest truffle found each year to a celebrity.

"It started in 1945," he said. "We decided to send the biggest truffle from that year's harvest to President Truman to thank him for his role in World War II. It was much bigger than this, and we packaged it in rice so it would keep. Truman got it and told the Italian ambassador to thank us and tell us that he really liked the rice but that "the potato inside was a bit stinky so I threw it away."

I had a sense the story might be apocryphal, but everyone listening clearly got too much pleasure from it for me to feel comfortable interjecting a note of journalistic skepticism. Instead, I just waited until we were seated and asked if I could have a bit more of the "Harry Truman reject" on my pasta. By week's end, I had eaten so many white truffles that I did something almost as unthinkable as withholding a skeptical question: Faced with a choice between tagliolini with white truffles and tagliolini with porcini mushrooms, I chose the porcini. If anyone had told me a week earlier that I would ever turn down white truffles, I would have laughed out loud.

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