San Miniato White Truffle Festival – ‘Just a Perfect Day’

Dedicated to L who in the middle of such a mess, presented me with just a perfect day. I will never forget.

 Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon – Susan Ertz

Some days are just perfect. Often they come along when you least expect them, like a party you at first don’t think will be very good and you end up staying until three in the morning. These are the days which, from modest beginnings, turn out to gift memories one will treasure for life.

San Miniato 'Alto' Up Above

San Miniato ‘Alto’ Up Above

Being of no fixed abode and having been reminded recently that for my 36 years, other than lots (too much?) travel I have little to show for it, to me these ‘perfect days’ take on perhaps disproportionate importance. In lieu of material possessions they become what I live for; justification perhaps in some ways of my choices over the past years and my not always as easy as it sounds, lifestyle.

I long since discovered that what turn out to be my favourite days in Italy, start off overcast. Even the remotest possibility of a few drops of rain appearing later in the day, is enough to put all weekend plans of hundreds of thousands of Italians on hold. They stay at home, the sun – too late to re-make plans – breaks through the deceptive clouds and if you’ve decided to brave the elements, you get the beach, village, fair or whatever to yourself. Such a day was Sunday 25th November 2012. I woke up late, no real plans, not the happiest of times. Then suddenly before even a morning coffee the suggestion was made to attend the last day of the Annual White Truffle Festival of San Miniato, Tuscany.

Entrance to The Annual White Truffle Festival

Entrance to The Annual White Truffle Festival

To give the full title the 42nd Mostra Mercato Nazionale del Tartufo Bianco, also came with the somewhat pretentious, but not entirely inaccurate as it turned out, subtitle of San Miniato Capitale dei Sapori d’Italia (Capital of Italian Flavours). In fact foods, products, wines and all manner of edible delicacies from all over the remarkable peninsular graced the counters of stalls stretching hundreds of metres throughout the upper, medieval centre of the San Miniato. However of the star of the show there was no doubt; the white truffle – also known as ‘the magic fruit’, ‘white gold’ or ‘the earth’s diamond’, was given place of honour at the top of the village.

This summer, readers of this blog might have been expecting a post about my walking the famous pilgirm route Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome. Due to several factors, this walk never happened. It might yet, but after parking our car in San Miniato basso in the Lower Arno Valley, approximately half way between Pisa and Florence, we refused the shuttle service which takes you a mile up the hill to the upper town and culinary heaven and I got to complete roughly one sixteenth hundred of the route. A classic Italian medieval hill-top town, San Miniato overlooks the strategically important meeting of the Egola and Elsa valley. This position resulted in bombing during WWII but much restoration has been carried out and truffles or no truffles, the town with its renaissance sites is well worth a visit at any time of year.

Pretty in Pink? Truffle Mousse and Salami

Pretty in Pink? Truffle Mousse and Salami

Fra Doderi, Montoderi e Poggioderi c’è un vitello d’oro” – between Doderi, Montoderi and Poggioderi there is a golden calf. The Old Testament reference maybe somewhat tenuous, yet children brought up in the hills surrounding San Miniato are still taught this ancient saying in reference to the quasi-religously venerated ‘white gold’ which grows sometimes quite literally beneath their feet as they play in the woods. On my tours I make a point of outlining as best I can the gastronomical specialities of each region or town as we drive through Italy. ‘…And of course truffles’, I always say when entering Tuscany. People generally go ‘ahhh’ but with a less than convincing tone of understanding. I think, and I count myself in these ranks (or at least I did until this Sunday), most know they are something exclusive, certainly valuable, but therein ends their knowledge.

Pop Truffle - 'Truffleness' Gone Mad?

Pop Truffle – ‘Truffleness’ Gone Mad?

The wonderful regional variation all across Italy, not merely in terms of foods, is one of my favourite characteristics about this great country. To test this theory, recently driving along the Fi-Pi-Li (Firenze-Pisa-Livorno) I asked my girlfriend, after seeing a sign ‘Lari, so what is that famous for’? ‘Cherries’, she immediately answered, proving that just about every tiny – and there are thousands – of these medieval towns have their thing. For San Miniato it is unquestionably – truffles, and not content with such a broad specialisation, white truffles to be precise. But what are they? A definition runs along the lines of ‘the fruiting body of a subterranean mushroom’. It turns out there are hundreds of species. Here in this area they proudly boast THE Tumber Magnatum Pico, the creme de la creme of the truffle species.

The ‘Tartufai’ or truffle hunters commence their highly secretive, not to mention lucrative, hunt when the season opens along the Via Francigena on 10th September. Traditionally pigs were used to sniff out the ‘diamante della terra’ – aptly named as these ‘mushrooms’ sell for up to €4000 per kilo. The pigs are attracted to the scent given off by the truffle, supposedly akin to the sex pheromones of boar saliva. The trouble with that? If you are not very fast, your dilly-dallying could prove extremely costly – the pigs love truffles as much or more as humans and will not hesitate to gobble them up, sadly not adding a respective value to pork. These days special truffle dogs are used. They are trained to sniff them out, and usefully are less inclined to consume highly sexed boar spit.

€30 Doesn't Get You Much White Truffle, But My Goodness It's Worth It

€30 Doesn’t Get You Much White Truffle, But My Goodness It’s Worth It

Thanks to the aforementioned early overcast conditions, the last day of the 2012 festival started off sluggishly in terms of people numbers. We had a wonderful couple of hours strolling the stalls, taking advantage of the free samples (NOT of truffles) and meeting Monica and Claudia from Tartufi Nacci who were proudly displaying the winning truffle in the annual competition – they wouldn’t of course tell us much about the where and how (truffles cannot be grown artificially, so imagine the secretive nature of the business), but would have let us walk away with their ‘catch’ for €3000. In the end amongst several other products, meats, wine, cheese and vegetables, we ‘settled’ for a piece about the size of a small walnut and escaped with €20. It was delicious both in homemade risotto and these little oven ‘cakes’ I never fully understood the nature of.

No perfect day out in Italy is complete without a lunch to write home about. In this case the restaurant we had wanted to visit was full, but we had both liked the look of a place called ‘Pizzeria Vecchio Cinema’ and their especially created Truffle Menu. Delicious, just delicious – one of the best meals, perhaps of my life. I had considered myself a non-truffle liker, or at least one for whom the expense involved was not worth it. It is thanks to L and this day, I now consider myself entirely converted. There is nothing better than stumbling upon a great place by accident and being blown away. I can thoroughly recommend Pizzeria Vecchio Cinema to anyone coming this way, for its food, friendliness and not least wine and excellent beer selection. Good to see a young couple taking a project like this on and doing so well.

Happiness In Two Full Bags and Wine...

Happiness In Two Full Bags and Wine…

The story has a happy ending in terms of waking up on a wet Sunday, with a million real life things on my mind, and the day turning out to provide an escape and a memory I will treasure. But unlike that Sunday as it turned out, there are dark clouds on the horizon. The ‘Tartufai’ and their precious ‘white gold’ are under threat. The Province of Pisa has proposed a series of sites right in the heart of truffle paradise for the extraction of more than a million cubic metres of sand. Before leaving San Miniato we both signed a petition aiming to prevent this potentially terminal threat to the truffle growing hills of San Miniato. It seems all too many wonderful things in life are under threat. All we can do is to keep fighting for what we believe in, value and love… and never give up.

‘You can’t live a perfect day without doing someone for someone who will never be able to repay you’ – John Wooden

Thank You

Thank You

Maybe I will indeed never be able to repay you, in which case L, this was your perfect day to me and in the immortal words of Lou Reed; ‘I’m glad I spent it with you’. Thank you.

~ by 2ndcupoftea on December 13, 2012.

2 Responses to “San Miniato White Truffle Festival – ‘Just a Perfect Day’”

  1. What a wonder blog. Makes me want to get on a plane next year for this Truffle Festival. Thanks for supporting the halting of ruining this valuable, natural region.

    Greetings from Texas! Love to you and “L”.

    • Hi Cathy, thanks so much for the kind words. If you do fly across the pond, be sure to let me know. The truffles in all their glory, will be waiting. Love to you in far away Texas.

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