Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Renato Agnello has been a truffalato for 67 years, hunting the elusive white truffle as his father and grandfathers did for generations before him. He was trained by his papa, starting at the age of six, here in the oak and hazelnut woods of northwestern Italy. Today Renato is demonstrating how he and his dog, Gigi, go searching for the underground fungus that looks like a knobby rock. It can sell for thousands of dollars a pound and adds a distinctive, subtle, earthy flavor to foods.

While we stroll the leafy woodland, Gigi sniffs here and there, gets excited at one spot, then turns away. Whatever her sensitive nose picked up, it wasn’t a truffle. I ask Renato why hunters don’t use pigs; aren’t they known for finding truffles? Yes, but it seems that pigs find them both delicious and sexually appealing and can go into frenzies when they root them up (who knew?) So here is Gigi, a dog  with presumably no erotic hopes, bounding through the woods.

Piedmont is the region best known for white truffles, and the town of Alba is where they’re most celebrated. Every October and November, the Truffle Fair draws visitors from around the world to taste, buy, and join in hunting expeditions. Virtually every restaurant serves white truffles, sliced or in sauces. The more common black truffle is usually cooked, but white truffles are often eaten raw, thinly shaved over pasta, risotto or a cream or meat sauce.

Searching for truffles is the secret work of autumn nights, with hunters jealously guarding treasured spots.  Renato says that truffles are becoming harder to find, as vineyards replace woodlands in this top-quality wine region. He remembers the cabbage-sized truffles his grandfather found; those big ones are very rare these days. But now Gigi is digging frantically at the base of a tree, so we hustle over and Renato reaches a hand in the hole. He pulls out a truffle no bigger than a pea, the only one he gets this afternoon.  Gigi’s happy–she did her job and expects a treat. We do too, in a local restaurant that serves truffle bits on a tasty veal dish.

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In a 13th century castle in Italy, I’m savoring hazelnut-crusted veal garnished with truffle shavings while being served by smiling waiters who praise my attempts to speak Italian and keep pouring red wine in my glass. Could anything be more sublime? No. At least, not until dessert arrives.

The imposing stone castle is Grinzane Cavour, set on a hill above acres of vineyards in the Piedmont wine country of northern Italy, and the restaurant is Ristorane al Castello. Its owner/chef Alessandro Boglione, who’s been here since 2009, has earned a Michelin star for his creative ways with cookery, but his prices are lower than you see at many starred restaurants. (That doesn’t mean it’s in the low budget category, however.) Local farms provide most of the ingredients. Appetizers of the day might be Jerusalem artichoke tart with Raschera cheese and black truffle cream or smoked duck with grapes and Grand Marnier-flavored tomatoes. Pastas range from veal tail-filled agnolotto on savoy cabbage and candied ginger to wild fennel lasagnetta with mountain snails and pecorino cheese.  Definitely creative.  A main dish could be suckling pig with apple puree, salt cod in cream, or, my choice, the veal with hazelnuts and truffles.  Featured wines are from the region’s great wineries. Then there are the desserts: warm hazelnut cake, coconut foam with chocolate and curry cream, and mine, bunet con pesche sciroppate. That roughly translates as chocolate pudding with peach syrup, which doesn’t begin to describe how luscious it is, rich melt-in-the-mouth chocolate under a drizzle of light peach sauce.

Ristorante al Castello is only part of the immense castle. Floors above it hold displays of traditional tools, handicrafts, and furnishings, and below is an enoteca (bar/tasting room/sales room). Every November, chefs worldwide come to the castle for the White Truffle Auction. That’s when the best of white truffles sell for sky-high prices.

I’m already looking forward to my next fine meal at Grinzane Cavour, along with  a taste of superb wine, a glimpse of history, and the pleasure of being in the vine-covered hills of the Italian countryside. The restaurant is closed Tuesdays and the month of January.

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I’m staring at Christianity’s holiest relic–a superb replica, actually–and I have to admit that all I see is a piece of very old cloth, 14 feet long. The real Shroud of Turin,  said to have been wrapped around Jesus’ body after his crucifixion, is stored in the city’s cathedral and rarely taken out for display.  The replica is in the Museum of the Shroud, on Via San Domenica, a short distance from the cathedral.

Believers have revered the Shroud (La Sindone) for centuries because it holds the faint imprint of what might be a crucified man, as well as blood stains, traces of wounds, and marks that could have been made by thorns. Whether you believe this is the real thing or not, the exhibition is one of Turin’s most intriguing places to visit. The Shroud replica lies in a clear case, and other displays explain the  travels, history and mystery of La Sindone. The cloth, Egyptian linen of a type used long ago, was apparently taken to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul, Turkey), disappeared during the Crusades, and showed up in 1353 in France.  Eventually it was owned by the Savoy rulers who brought it to Italy in the 16th century and finally gave it to the church on condition that it remain in Turin. And so it rests now in the cathedral, Duomo di San Giovanni, in a custom-built, airtight, bullet-proof, bacteria-proof case.

Over the years various scientific tests have been performed on the fabric. Every finding, on either side, is challenged. Nothing guarantees its authenticity–and nothing explains the imprint of the image.  It remains shrouded in mystery. My eyes still see only an ancient, stained cloth, but the enlargements and displays in the museum point it out clearly. If it’s a fake, it’s impressive. Even more impressive is its effect on the millions who hold it sacred.

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Al BicerinI came to Piazza la Consolata in Turin, Italy, because I had to taste a famous drink. Il bicerin is served at what may be the smallest cafe in Italy, a cozy place with 8 tables (double that in summer, when more are set outside on the old stone piazza). Caffe Al Bicerin opened in 1763, and not much has changed since then. Same counter and wrought iron, same kinds of pastries and chocolates. The shop windows and shleves are filled with jars of sweets, as they were more than 2 centuries ago, when aristocratic women swept in on Sundays after mass to refresh themselves. Like them, like Dumas, Nietzsche, Puccini, and Count Cavour (Council president of the first united Italian il biceringovernment) before me, I’m sitting at a marble-topped table and sipping something sublime. The mixture of espresso, chocolate, and cream is divinely rich, thick, and delicious. The cold layer of cream rests on the hot chocolate and coffee and I’m told you never stir it in, but drink the chocolate through the cream, mixing hot and cold, dwelling on each flavor as it slides over the tongue. You can get other drinks here, including teas, frappes, spumante, and Barolo, but I’ll come back for the bicerin.

If you need more consoling after that experience, cross the piazza to what I consider the most beautiful church interior in a city full of gorgeous churches and monuments. Santuario Basilica La Consolata is jaw-dropping splendid. Designed by architects Guarini and Juvarri in the 17th century, it combines Baroque and Italian Rococo styles. The Romanesque tower that was part of a previous church still stands on the right side of the Basilica. There’s a gorgeous marble floor and a high altar, dating from 1714, that is lavish with silver, marble, carvings and gilt. On one side stands a lovely silver Madonna and Child; this figure is paraded through Turin every June in recognition of the Virgin’s protection of the city. Most moving to me is a wall on a lower level that holds a huge ex-voto collection. These are drawings made by people asking for help or giving thanks for a miracle, whether it’s a motorcycle accident, an overturned tractor, a hospital scene, a battlefield, or other misery. It’s enough to make you light a candle and go have another bicerin.

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