Fruit-Forward and Fungus
On truffles, wine, and the color purple.
"It's like a regular mushroom wished for a deep, haunting musk, but in dealing with the devil, it became wizened and ugly," Meg said. She looked at me, warily, with a raised eyebrow. This is because I am mean and often poke at her mercilessly for her descriptions of what she’s eating or drinking — including once when she gleefully said the veal cheeks at a press dinner had "the consistency of pot roast." (In all fairness, it was the first bite of cow she'd had in five years). "Look," she said, testily, "I stand by that description." (Actually, she was right.)
This time of year, the annual white truffle festival turns Alba tartufo crazy, as the town crowds with visitors strolling the narrow streets lined with stalls hawking everything truffle: cheeses, oils, honeys, pastas, desserts, even T-shirts. We saw a logo of a gnarled brown truffle wearing a crown.
All this fuss for a fungus that grows with the roots of forest trees here in the region surrounding Alba, and is dug up by dogs. Yes, fungus, like what grows between toes. But it's no surprise, really. So much of what's "desirable" or "fashionable" is counterintuitive. As an example, for some crazy reason this year, everything in the windows of the luxury boutiques along Milan's Golden Quadrangle — shoes, scarves, sweaters, cell phones — is purple. Purple. Which looks good on no one. Yet "Purple," says Time, "is having a moment." In fact, in a trend piece two weeks ago, the writer posited that purple was "a sign of our uncertain times."Times are certainly uncertain in the white truffle market, which collapsed as we were enjoying the unseasonably warm Piemonte sunshine. Lucky for us, this collapse is likely why we were able to buy our small nugget for only 30 euros at the festival in Alba.
On our first night in Alba, at the Osteria dell'Arco, we'd eaten an amazing uovo in cocotte con tartufo bianco — or baked whole eggs piled with white truffle shavings. "Wow," said Meg. "I usually stay away from egg, so this is surprising and delicious." At 35 euros, it was Meg's very first course of her very first meal in Italy, and along with the excellent Barbera d'Alba we were drinking, I envied her this auspicious introduction to Italian cuisine.But by the time we arrived at the Pio Cesare winery — four meals later — to taste its famed Barolos and Barberescos, and Barberas, many of which sell for over $100 a bottle, I could tell that the sheer volume and pricepoints of the food and drink had become slightly overwhelming. We were met by fourth generation winemaker Pio Boffa and his cousin Agosto, who led us through a tour of their cellars, along a 2,000-year-old Roman wall, and past the prized collection of bottles dating from 1902. Meg went quiet. She told me afterward that, as more of a food person than a wine person, the price of the wines had intimidated her, that the Roman wall had intimidated her, and that she didn't want to ask the wrong questions. "I was thinking they'd be pretentious," she said.
After the tour, we met Pio Boffa in the tasting room, and he insisted that we taste the wine with something to eat, rather than do a typical, clinical tasting. Suddenly, just like Meg, I became disquieted. Professionals taste wines and spirits with no food. I make my living tasting. Was I somehow coming across as an amateur who needed lunch as a crutch? I insisted on tasting before lunch, without food. We did our tasting in silence.
This, unfortunately, is what wine and spirits — and many other coveted foodstuffs — too often do to people. It messes with their heads. But why wouldn't it? Taste is so subjective, so fickle, and a source of so much insecurity. Taste is too often wielded maliciously. And everyone is occasionally seized by the same question: Can I trust my own taste?When faced with say, an extraordinary 2004 Barolo, what do you say? Wine critic Eric Asimov posted last year on his blog: "A great Barolo is indeed a powerful, moving and profound thing." If that is true (and while I’m not given over to such hyperbole, I wouldn't disagree) then what specific language can one use to explain why this is so?
And if, in the wine, we happen to detect notes of truffle (which we already couldn't accurately describe) then what kind of a conundrum is that?
Anyone who's in the business of sipping or chewing, and then passing judgement, also inevitably faces his or her taste being called into question. "Why should we trust you?" is what people want to know. And this might be reasonable. Can you, for instance, trust a schlubby guy like me who wears the same corduoys and sweatshirt every day, and who somedays would be just as happy eating a pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwich from a street cart? Maybe if my sweatshirt was fashionably purple?
Finally, after we'd tasted six wines in silence, and the room couldn't get any more awkward, Pio invited Meg and me into his opulent dining room for lunch.
We sat down and were served plate of salami and a spinach flan. And we began tasting the six wines all over again with the meal. "Food, food, food," Pio said. "These wines are meant to be enjoyed with food. In this county, we never, ever drink any of these wines without food. With the acidity of these wines, you should never drink them alone." He was right. It was amazing how great the Barbera tasted after eating a bite of carne crudo, almost tangibly surrounding the tongue where the meat had been.
And at the same time, Pio railed against the cult of wine and food pairing that's often peddled by food journalists. You know the drill: Drink this wine with this, and this wine with that. "I am the worst enemy of advice on pairing food with wine," Pio said. "I hate that. I don't need to have people tell me what to drink with what I eat. My value is not your value. It's bullshit!"
Meg and I exchanged smiling glances. We'd met a kindred spirit.
I mentioned that I'd really never been down with the hunt most wine geeks undertake, sniffing and searching for notes and, more importantly, their colorful descriptors. "It's jammy," they'll say. "Fruit-forward. Leathery. Full of red fruit. Hints of tobacco and tropical fruit." Or they'll delve into a pseudo-zen koan: "Mature yet owns the promise of youthfulness." I try to avoid this sort of nonsense.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, it had to be this way," Pio said. "They had to create an almost magical language. They wanted to create mystique. They wanted to get attention."
Then Pio told us a story about a champagne tasting he’d once attended, one with a bunch of wine writers all trying to out-describe one another. "After a certain champagne was served, one critic spoke up and he announced, 'This wine tastes of sperm!'"
When we finally got to the 2004 Barolo, which we ate with agnolotti in a bolognese sauce, Pio was holding forth on why Barolo is so great. He insisted it was because there were so many micro-variations between the nebbiolo grapes grown in different vineyards all around the 11 towns of the Barolo region, which when blended added up to something complex. "The grapes from some areas are supple, some are elegant, some have finese, some are more tannic. It's wine you want to spend time with."
Suddenly, Meg, who'd still said very little during the entire lunch turned to Pio and said, "So what you're saying is you might date other red wines, but this would be a wine you'd marry."
Was there anything else to say? • 20 November 2008
Jason Wilson is editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin) and writes the Spirits column for the Washington Post.