Fruit-Forward and Fungus

On truffles, wine, and the color purple.

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How would you describe the smell and taste of a fresh white truffle?
Meg and I asked each other this very question as we navigated the
streets of Alba, lost on our way to Pio Cesare winery. We debated this
because we were in possession of a tiny truffle that filled our tiny
Lancia with its odor. And odor seems the right term — I definitely
would not call it a fragrance or a scent. Like most people experiencing
the white truffle firsthand, we’d been throwing out the usual
descriptors: earthy, pungent, woody, rooty, garlicky, cheesy. We were
also still laughing about the unfortunate description of its taste by
food writer Corby Kummer, published in Gourmet some years ago: “It tasted of parts of the body I urgently wanted to know better.”

“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 the founding editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin).

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