After a fruitless search for the white truffle the hunting party takes a different tack, writes Fergus Henderson.
There's an annual trip to Italy organised by Mitch Tonks, a most amicable restaurateur, and his wine merchant, Tim, to go in search of the white truffle. I'd like to point out that we have very little success, even though we go out with a gnarled old man dressed in an outfit that could be found at a theatrical costumiers on the "Piedmont peasant" rack. Every year this ancient fellow asks us back to his cottage to drown our sorrows in rough red wine and sausage, at which point his mate then appears with a huge truffle and within moments, softened by the wine and our disappointing hunt earlier, we find ourselves handing over thousands of euros for his gnarled growth which we then take to a restaurant and have them prepare with fresh pasta, and stewed horse to follow.
There is one technical hitch: we travel in a coach for quite long stretches of time between breakfast, lunch and dinner, which can lead to The Italian Job-factor (it's almost impossible not to start humming the tune; it's a self-preservation technique) and seems to bring out the lad in most of the passengers. After supper last visit, we fell into the only bar in town and much to my amazement it was not long before most of our group had their shirts off, most of them being chefs and therefore revealing pallid white fish-bellies. It made it very clear how the misconception arose that the English abroad are thugs, when in truth everyone in our party was a darling. Even so, if you're an English speaker, it's probably a good idea to give this village a miss for a couple of years until our reputation has been restored, or at least forgotten.
This last trip was low on the truffle-factor but big on the love-and-emotion Richter scale. The biggest tremors of delight registered at Dario Cecchini's butcher shop in Panzano in Chianti, a gem of a place, especially when it had the traditional Tuscan touch of AC/DC blaring from the speakers. We were fed lardo, bread and red wine before taking dinner in Dario's restaurant above the shop, one of the meatiest feasts I can ever recall. There was such generosity and joy from Dario and his wife that by night's end there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
It was a banquet of mighty meat proportions, starting with two kinds of raw meat, then a dish that Dario called Tuscan tuna - my memory might be a little hazy but I believe it was shredded slow-cooked pork. Then comes the whole reason for the meal, the bistecca alla Fiorentina, announced by Dario blowing his wee trumpet (which makes a lot of noise for a small horn). I'm hazarding a guess here, but I think they were giant fore-rib steaks that had been just tickled by the heat of a charcoal griddle. Whatever pastimes these cows had had, they certainly made for a giving mouthful of yum. I don't by any means look undernourished, but as fast as I could eat it my cow quota was replenished and I quickly felt as full as a bull.
And it didn't stop there. The next dish was so splendidly soothing that we joyfully continued: braised pig's trotter, tomato, potato and beans. Then finally a baked potato stuffed with lardo. Phwoar. It was truly amazing how these last courses wriggled around to fit in to the little gaps left by the onslaught of meat - truly a tribute to the wonders of the human body.
It was one of the great lunches, and to top it all Dario announced with great ceremony that he was going to make me a Citizen of the Gastronomic Republic of Panzano. Stuffed and emotional, I was a mess. And then I remembered I still had the white truffle to face at dinner. I've been known to push the restorative powers of Fernet-Branca to their theoretical limits, but putting me to rights after all this wonderment may have been the magical elixir's greatest feat to date. Now, about that truffle…
Illustration Lara Porter