Tuesday, June 13, 2006

From Italy: Museo del Tartufo

Our visit to the Museo del Tartufo, Italy’s first truffle museum inaugurated last year in San Giovanni d’Asso, fortuitously coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the village’s truffle fair, the Mostra Mercato del Tartufo Bianco delle Crete Senesi, held on weekends during the month of November.

When we heard that an old steam train was transporting fairgoers from Siena, we couldn’t resist and booked seats. Leaving foggy Siena at nine in the morning, we travelled south toward Montalcino, passing kitchen gardens and castles, through red and gold autumnal vineyards and industrials zones. And then, after Monte Amiata, the highest point in Tuscany, we came upon the undulating, cypress studded hills of the Crete Senese, eventually arriving at the tiny medieval village which for the past twenty years has awarded an international prize, the “Truffle for Peace”.

Hungry by then, we decided on a quick lunch of hot sausage and melted pecorino crostini washed down by good red country wine, readily available in these parts. We wandered off to pet the truffle dogs, and explore the various booths, bottegas, and cantinas which were showing off their wares and offering samples: olive wood kitchen utensils, honey, pecorino cheeses of various ages, marmelades and condiments. The tavernas delivered up truffle-flavored everything, from antipasti to dolci. The wine flowed, a blacksmith and a falconer displayed their skills, and a fashion show of clothes made from hempfibers rounded off the afternoon’s agenda.

Unlike the big, commercial truffle fair up north in Alba, this is strictly a local production, and everyone seems to know each other. Alongside the tables set up by the truffle hunters, with their traditional blue plaid tea towels filled with fragrant white truffles, other villagers were selling fresh, just-pressed olive oil. Our friend Jeff particularly recommended one vendor who was giving out lots of free samples. I couldn’t resist the salsa of artichokes, the garlic sprouts preserved in olive oil, and the pumpkin mostardo.

The small museum, located in the bright, vaulted castle rooms, still shows traces of 16th century frescoes. The exhibits are self-guided and interactive, designed to introduce all ages to an understanding of what a truffle is, how it can be identified by the senses, how it has been perceived throughout history, how to cook and preserve it. A video takes us on a truffle hunt. Another shows three local cooks demonstrating recipes. At the end of our visit I bought two excellent truffle cookbooks from a friendly staffer, both in Italian, one with an English translation.

If you find yourself in Tuscany some November, I recommend this decidedly un-touristy local gastronomic event.

Museo del Tartufo e Centro di Documentazione
Piazza Gramsci, 1 (Castello Comunale)
53020 San Giovanni d’Asso / 39-0577-803101 (Comune)
Weekends 10-1, 2-6 (call ahead). Admission is $3.70.

by Elizabeth Wholey

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