The Piedmont region of Italy is the original centre of the Slow Food movement, and home to one of the world’s most prized culinary delicacies, the white Alba truffle. Truffles are a type of rare fungus that grow a few inches underground, in symbiosis with the roots of hardwood trees like Chestnut, Oak and Hazelnut. They grow exclusively in Alba, are harvested for only a few months each fall, and should be eaten within days of harvest. They’re famously expensive but that’s largely because they can’t be cultivated — they can only be foraged for in the woods. Historically, pigs were used to sniff out truffles but, like us, they tended to be overly exuberant about eating them. These days specially trained, well-loved dogs are the sniffers of choice.
Photo credit: Alfagia Di Volterra
Here in North America, people pay exorbitant prices for truffles to be carefully exported and shaved onto pappardelle at restaurants like Babbo in New York; given that the aromas diminish after just five days, however, these diners are getting only a fraction of the flavor. If you can get yourself to the mother truffle-ship in Piedmont, you can have one of these lumpy beauties in hand for as little as 20 euro, to be enjoyed at their absolute best.
The last time Danielle and I were in in Italy, the famous Alba White Truffle Festival (Tartufa Bianco D’Alba) rocked our world. More market than festival, the event largely consisted of wandering through a giant domed tent in a sensory stupor while truffle farmers seduced us by shoving these “diamonds of cuisine” at our noses (novelist William Thackeray described their aroma as, “a hot drowsy smell, that lulls the senses, and yet enflames them”). We bought one the size of a ping-pong ball and giddily shared it over the course of a week with friends in Italy and France, shaved over just about anything, often accompanied by bottles of Barolo.
To me, the magic of truffle season is rooted in its exquisite inconvenience. The road to Alba is windy, through the rolling hills where truffles are found with difficulty by farmers with deep knowledge of the soil. Truffles are sold just as they are — dirty and spectacularly ugly — and for just those few months each fall, they can be had at every restaurant in town, the crowned jewel atop tajarin pasta with butter. It’s such a simple dish, but I’ve never tasted anything so delicious.
There are few culinary pleasures we can’t buy on a whim, in every season and incarnation. Truffles have not been so tamed. They are wildly, fleetingly limited to a specific, startlingly beautiful place where their aroma and flavour are passionately indulged in. Their delicate flavor could never be preserved in a jar (nor is it represented in the cloying, synthetic truffle oil often served on fries) and so, they are respectively bid farewell until the following year. Truffles ask us to wake up and love them like we mean it for the brief time they’re with us; to enjoy them fully requires effort and boldness and a light touch. Imagine if all of our relationships — to food and, more significantly, to people — inspired such intentionality.
At Pyrrha, Danielle and I, along with our team of artisans, strive to design and make our jewelry with that level of intentionality. We believe all of our relationships — to everything we buy and wear and eat, and, of course, in how we connect with people — should be approached with the care and levity and love we found in Alba. If I had to choose one of our talismans to remind me of the that perspective, it would be “While we live, let us live.”
Until next October when I vow to spend time in northwestern Italy, drunk on the earthy pleasure of tuber magnatum — I’ll keep aiming to live every day like it’s white-truffle season. Freedom and joy, in Piedmont, and every day.