It’s Sasha. It’s still 2024. I’m two days late, but enthusiastically here for your reading pleasure.
January: a blur. Life has resumed mach speed again, and I expect it will continue to do so until I am at least finished with my training in April. Readers of Fooooood! may have caught the short essay I published about Tomatoes and Logistics, or another on Reference Points. I still feel like I’m banging around in the dark, finding my voice with the writing, but it is getting a teensy little bit easier.
The last week has also found me, in precious spare moments, cavorting around Paris visiting art museums on the occasion of a visiting painter-friend (Jordan Fritz) who is here on pilgrimage from Vancouver Island. This is wonderful as I have visited approximately zero museums since moving here, and have been irked by my own penchant to make plans and then cancel those plans at the last minute due to lack of time, energy, or both.
So it is with great gratitude that I allowed myself to be dragged along to a few galleries and museums, even for an hour or two. Jordan and I walked the wide-ranging contemporary ART3F exhibit at the Expo de Versailles and a truly excellent documentary photo exhibition (Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith and countless others) at The Centre Pompidou, alongside its permanent collection (Matisse, Picasso, etc).
Walking an art museum or gallery with another — particularly one knowledgeable about the art — is such a wonderful way to magnify your vision. You walk and then compare notes, discovering inspiration or details that might otherwise have been invisible, learning things about how the other person sees and what they are drawn to. At one point at the expo, we stood side-by-side staring at an impressionist still-life of a bright, plant-filled room. I asked Jordan what he was looking at. He said something that I have thought about since: “the brush strokes. It takes most artists their whole career to learn to make a brush stroke.”
La Dolce Vita
A light pulsed. A small furred animal stuck its torso above the seats a few rows in front of me. Actually it was an arm. Another followed it, holding a water bottle. It passed the bottle to another plumed sleeve, this one in the next row, so white it might have been composed of polar bear. The arm retreated, and a head and poof-adorned torso rose behind it, belonging to a perfect specimen of manicured Italian female: shining brown hair so straight it actually fell in sheets, like rain; face hidden beneath inimitable layers of expertly blended makeup, eyes and mouth shaped into almonds by lipstick and eyeliner. Beautiful, in a classic, young, rather loud Italian way. Somewhere, under those many layers of careful construction, was a regular human. But one would never know it – such are the powers of makeup and moon boots.
The creature pursed its pale flamingo lips, carefully slid out of its seat, blinked and walked off the plane. Three others of nearly (but not quite) equal majesty followed it.
So began my first moments in Italy. The country was for some reason revelatory, I think maybe because I have never seen so many Italians in their natural habitat being — well — Italians. Italians as a group are remarkably good at blending into other countries. Nearly every nation on earth has flocks of them, but their presence is not distinctly felt, even as their culture is omnipresent. In small concentrations, this presence, with all its loudly beautiful eccentricities, blends into the landscape.
But in the motherland, it is overwhelmingly evident. Italians fill peripheries of sight and sound: over-feeding each other, talking with their hands, chao’ing their mammas, arguing passionately about the weather or the price of fish or anything else that might engender loud conversation. The loquaciousness and ebullience of this group of wonderful dark-haired humans was of course, all the more conspicuous after having been immersed in the comparatively aloof and cool France for so long.
Milan, it is snarkily whispered, is a very un-Italian city: there are few cobblestones, much traffic, and a metropolitan affectation that goes against the grain of what most consider the true Italian “dolce vita”. I found myself in Milan with the better part of a day to occupy while awaiting a ride onwards.
So I spent a rainy day loping around Milan in search of nothing in particular, sometimes on the exceptionally well organized metro (“Kiss and Ride”), sometimes on rental bikes, but usually on foot.
Contrary to whatever expectations I may have had, I loved the Milanese sensibility. I loved the paradoxical, almost satirical way oddities emerged from the humdrum, mundane cityscape. Moon boots (always with the moon boots) and capes would appear amongst throngs of suits and formless muted grey jackets. When it rained, dark umbrellas would sprout like flowers from gloved hands at street-level, unbroken except by the occasional burst of peacockish brilliance. Thick-moustached Italian men sipped dark puddles of espresso in standing-room-only cafes while young professionals on their lunch breaks queued for Starbucks next-door. The gothic immensity of the Duomo next to Versace billboards and almost equally impressive shopping centres. I didn’t miss the cobblestones for a second.
In one such shopping centre I discovered a food court filled with vendors selling every possible Italian snack; strips of pizza al taglio, feathers of breaseola wrapped around chunks taken from an oozing block of gorgonzola so large it looked sentient, and maritozzo (sweet brioche filled with chantilly) so perfect they were almost painful to eat; plus enormous cases of glistening sea creatures ready to be fried, baked, or boiled on demand for throngs of hungry young business-people.
In a wine bar later that night I met a manicured Italian man with a daschund named Figaro. I watched out of the corner of my eye as the man sipped his glass of Nebbiolo, gabbing with the barman and absentmindedly slipping cornichons to the dachshund. The wine glass emptied and filled itself, and Figaro nibbled at the growing pile of pickles at his feet, man and dog a picture of perfect satisfaction.
The Luckiest Rodents
As much as I enjoyed the covert quirkiness of Milan, by the end of the day I was glad to escape to Alba, a town nestled in the rolling pastures of Piedmont, where I spent my remaining time immersed in the fascinating world of truffledom. There are six known varieties of edible truffles (technically tubers — subterranean fungi that grow and fruit underground), but I had undertaken this pilgrimage to learn about the mother of them all: the Piedmontese white.
My interest in the tubers was a matter of professional curiosity: within European and American gastronomic circles, the white truffle (Tuber Magnatum) is generally regarded as a pinnacle noble ingredient — which is to say that fresh tubers are highly sought after, difficult to come by, and come with appropriately dumbfounding price tags (actual fact: white truffles from Piedmont have been known to sell for as much as US $4,800.00 per kilo, with a larger specimen famously selling to a Chinese casino magnate for $330,000.00). Magnatum is the kind of stuff, like Beluga Caviar, that the majority of the dining public will never encounter, and would probably regard with suspicion, confusion, or even disgust if they ever did. This is because, like so many darlings of the culinary sophisticate, truffles are expensive adventure food; they are nuanced, heady, unusual, and a little bit mysterious.
Naturally, news of the festival caught my attention and held it. For a small fee, attendees could enrol in classes on procurement and sensory analysis, and the esoteric and generally indulgent notion of spending an entire weekend engrossed in the universe of rarified, eccentric vegetables was too tempting to ignore.
So I found myself sitting in a small room in the attic of the natural science museum in Alba on a brisk Saturday afternoon in November, alongside a raggedy assortment of tourists and food/wine professionals, listening to a thin-lipped, soft-spoken Italian man whose name might have been Mariano lecture us about truffles through a translator.
Mariano introduced himself to the quiet room while a few stragglers arrived. He had gotten about sixteen words into an explanation of the history of truffles in Italy when a wide-set, thickly moustached American hippopotamus of a man strode in, introducing himself as “sorry m’late” in a forceful, vaguely southern drawl.
The man, who we’ll call Al, remained standing at the back of the room shuffling his substantial paunch from foot to foot like an agitated walrus, and proceeded to interrupt Mariano every two or three minutes with a different question. Mariano explained sporulation. Al wanted to know, “could you eat them truffles whole”? Mariano told us about the different non-edible varieties and their interest to the scientific community. Al wanted to know where could he get some “good’uns for cheap”? And how would he know he was “gettin’ a deal” if all the truffles looked the same? The heat of his desire to find bargain truffles would not abate.
In between questions and Mariano’s increasingly terse answers about truffle shopping, we learned that Magnatum are a particularly interesting specimen of evolutionary lunacy. While most truffles grow in myriad conditions, Magnatums grow only in fall/winter and are picky to the point of absurdity. By virtue of sheer luck, a Magnatum spore must find itself within shouting distance of a particular tree (usually Oak, Willow, or Poplar), at which point it forms a partnership with the tree’s roots that results, if all appropriate conditions are met, in the growth of its odiferous fruit.
But Magnatums are picky beasts. They will not grow if the soil pH is too high, or too low, or too dry, or too wet. A Magnatum requires moderately sloping ground with fair surface moisture, even during drier months. It prefers valley bottoms. It dislikes real estate above 700 meters or dirt too far away from water. Even when all these conditions are met, Magnatums often fail to fruit, as their spores are delicate and ill-adapted to reproduction.
Such pickiness makes ripened fruits rare, but it is their aroma that makes them precious. This we learned when Mariano passed a collection of small glass jars containing ping-pong-ball-sized tubers around the classroom and asked us to sniff (Al’s eyes nearly popped out of his forehead. You could see him start to perspire). Just a whiff of air at the top was intense; like having your head stuffed into a wine-barrel of sauerkraut and vanilla and fresh honeycomb and wet hay.
This aroma has captivated aesthetes throughout history, from Pliny the Elder to Plutarch to Caterina de' Medici, and according to the consortium of Italian truffle people is an evolved characteristic. Growing entirely underground and being unable to reproduce on their own, truffles need a way to attract predators so that they can be eaten and eventually pooped out, spreading their spores to trees nearby. The amusing sidebar here is that each year in early winter the truffle-hunting dogs and squirrels/voles/mice of Piedmont begin an annual competition to see who can get to local tubers first. Often the critters win. I picture a small rodent crouched by an oak tree in the moonlight nibbling happily on a tuber worth over $2,500 USD. The Italians have some lucky rats.
If all this were not enough, truffles have an incredibly short shelf life — once plucked from the earth, they begin to spoil immediately and cannot be preserved. A truffle more than two weeks old is mostly useless (oils, cheeses, and other such truffle condiments are almost always flavoured with synthetic perfumes, occasionally containing dried, aroma-less pieces of truffle for marketing purposes). This creates an interesting paradox: a truffle-hunter, who carefully guards his hunting spots and searches for produce under the cover of night using only hand-signals, does not dare leave ripened fruit underground lest it be dug up by a competitor, BUT if he finds too many truffles and supply outpaces demand, he must sell them in a hurry. Thus the price of truffles during truffle season can fluctuate wildly, particularly during boom cycles in Alba.
In the end, I imagine that Al satisfied his truffle lust. While 2023 wasn’t a boom year, the festival was nearing its end, and many vendors had lowered their prices modestly in hopes of getting rid of errant stock. The whole experience was absurd, bizarro, and while I may or may not ever use the compendium of truffle facts I acquired over the weekend, I loved every minute of it.