WASHINGTON — It's a story of our time: well-dressed guests turned out in a tony celebrity setting to welcome a famous foreigner scheduled for a nationwide goodwill tour--only to discover the distinguished visitor has been captured en route and held hostage by a hostile government.
Such was the deplorable state of affairs at last week's opening reception of the 15th annual, coast-to-coast White Truffle Festival. At the Jefferson Hotel, five prominent D.C. chefs and 150 serious foodies gathered last Tuesday night to toast the autumnal arrival of Italy's celebrated and aromatic tartufo bianco, one of the world's most exotic and expensive foodstuffs.
Wine corks popped. Risotto simmered. Scallops were seared and venison sliced. But, yo, Giovanni--the truffles was busted in Newark!
"It appears USDA inspectors found some sort of larvae in the shipment," said festival executive producer John Edward Smith of Miami, struggling hard to remain upbeat at the mention of the food police. "It's early in the season, and it's been damp in Italy. This sort of thing can happen."
He was less sanguine, he said, on discovering that his 10-pound shipment--roughly $15,000 worth of underground tubers--had been sitting around in various airports for three days awaiting the pleasure of the food police. White truffles, like most airline passengers, can get resentful sitting around.
"I don't remember the name of the USDA inspector, but he was a little short guy with a really bad attitude," said Francesco Lupo, manager of Boscovivo Tartufi USA ("Purveyors of Truffles & Specialties"), in New York.
The Washington shipment had arrived Oct. 7 at John F. Kennedy Airport on a flight from Rome, and was punctured with a metal probe by U.S. Customs drug searchers, Lupo said. Then it was mistakenly sent to Newark Airport, where it was earmarked for "in-depth inspection" by the USDA.
"Sometimes that takes an hour, sometimes it takes forever," Lupo said. "The more you call about it, the more they make you wait, to prove that they have the power, not you."
Lupo said he was on hand Tuesday in Newark when the box was finally opened. "It had obviously been improperly stored. A little 'truffle fly'--similar to a fruit fly-- flew out when it was opened, and the inspector says, 'This has to be destroyed,' and that was that. But I don't understand why he couldn't have told me that Saturday, in time for us to fly in some more."
USDA inspectors in Newark did not return phone calls Wednesday.
The Jefferson reception, sponsored by Boscovivo, participating restaurants and Italian wine distributors, was the first of 15 White Truffle events scheduled in eight cities nationwide in the next seven weeks.
As unhappy as he was at the fate of the Washington shipment, Lupo said, such uncertainties of the white truffle add to its mystique. Coming from the Italian Piedmont, it is even more expensive, though only slightly, than the famous black Perigord truffle of France, which more often comes from Spain.
Trained dogs sniff out the white truffle around the roots of oak trees from October through December; Perigord black truffles are available January through March.
White truffles are so richly earthy and aromatic that they're often shaved fresh onto food at the last minute as a special gourmet treat.
Special student shavers from L'Academie de Cuisine were primed and ready at the Jefferson when news of the truffle-napping hit. The stunned chefs scrambled to compose dishes unshaven. Jefferson chef James Hudock turned up a tiny private white truffle stash, which he chopped and sauced thinly; others improvised as best they could.
Least fazed appeared to be Ingrid Aielli, wife of chef Fabrizio Aielli of Teatro Goldoni restaurant, whose dishes included white truffle ice cream. It tasted, if you can believe it, like nothing so much as vanilla ice cream flavored with the richest pipe tobacco in the world.
"I didn't count on their truffles--brought my own," she sniffed. "These men! Every woman knows you always have a Plan B."