Richard Cook (photography by Marcus Oleniuk) Il Tartufo d’Oro. From Italian earth to Hong Kong Table. The journey of a record-breaking white truffle Wordasia, 2006.
In November 2005, FCC member Richard Cook flew to North Italy to explore a parallel universe where white truffles take the place of stars in the sky. With him was photographer Marcus Oleniuk. Now we have the fruits of their journey: a book about the mysterious tartufi bianchi the white truffles which grow wild below the surface of the earth in a particular corner of Italy, called the Langhe region, around Alba, the ancient Alba Pompeia of the Romans.
Emperor Nero adored them, Plinius, Cicero, Lucullus loved them. Apicius, the authority on late Roman cuisine, mention black truffles several times in one of the earliest cookery books De Re Coquinaria (On the subject of Cooking), but the prized white variety appears to have been unknown to him.
Magic properties have been attributed to truffles but the most constant seems to be their properties as an aphrodisiac.
The essence of this rarity is impossible to describe. One chef, interviewed by Cook, sums it perfectly: “Of course truffles are unique. You don’t actually eat the truffle, you eat its flavour and you cannot say that about any other food.”
It is a pity that this work, so elegantly written and full of poetry, has been published as a coffee table book, it deserves to be printed as a serious hardback on heavy handmade paper. One day it will be a collector’s item, an important document of a vanished world. People will look through these pages and murmur: ‘so that’s how it was!’
I was also unable to understand why on the cover there is a picture of a very small truffle, instead of the subject of this book, the tartufo d’oro or golden truffle, which set a world record at auction in November 2005, when Tycoon Gordon Wu outbid connoisseurs from France and Italy to bring the large mushroom to Hong Kong.
The story starts with a night expedition into the forest, following the footsteps of a humble truffle hunter and his dog, the essential tool of his trade – a good truffle hunter dog is worth his or her weight in gold. Hunters sally forth after dark in order to hide their prized hunting grounds from competitors. Oleniuk’s beautiful black and white pictures move the reader into a sort of fairy words, full of shadows and mists. While reading it I remembered the final passage of the Georgics by Virgil:
Thus have I sung of fields, of flocks, and trees,
And the waxen work of labouring bees;
While mighty Caesar, thundering from afar,
Seeks on Euphrates’ bank the spoils of war;
With conquering arts asserts his country’s cause;
With arts of peace the willing people draws;
On the glad earth the golden age renews,
And his great father’s path to heaven pursues.
Truffle hunter Giuseppe Giamesio knows that his world is an endangered one. “Year by year…it’s getting harder to find large truffles. The books I have always hunted in are now surrounded by vineyards. The wine growers use a lot of chemicals…it doesn’t help the truffles grow.”
No one has yet managed to cultivate white truffles, not even in Alba’s National Truffles Centre, but they are trying hard to do so before it is too late. Meanwhile, a small industry has grown around up around the white truffle. Organisation is key and timing and quality control are all-important. Cook followed the auction of the larges truffle of the year, a monster weighting 1.2 kg and said to possess a divine smell and a fine texture. The shape reminds us of scholars’ rocks, those intricate stones used by long departed Chinese literati to detach their minds from worldly affairs.
We now know that this particular truffle was bought by Gordon Wu on behalf of a consortium of local businessmen for 95.000 Euro and was then donated to the Mother’s Choice charity organization. It was served up at Toscana Restaurant in the Ritz Carlton, in Central, to 60 paying guests.
In charge, that evening, was Umberto Bombana, probably the most expert truffle chef in Asia. Unfortunately, I was not among the lucky 60 but I’ve been told by one who was, that the truffle meal that evening was like knocking at heaven’s door.