Paris to the Pyrenees: A Book Review

By Tuesday, April 1, 2014 Permalink 0
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Jonell Galloway, The Rambling EpicureParis to the Pyrenees: A Review of David Downie’s Book

 

by Jonell Galloway

CoverParisPyrenees

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Paris to the Pyrenees, David Downie takes us right along with him on the Way of St. James, without our ever leaving our armchairs. As stated in the subtitle, “A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Ways of St James,” we’re not talking about a conventional pilgrim, so we don’t expect his transformations to be like those of traditional Christians. But then, the Way of St. James, like so many pilgrim routes in the world, becomes a spiritual journey spreading well beyond the confines of Christianity.

 

St. James Camino Scallop Shel lMarker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Downie makes it a personal journey, full of the classical culture and history he knows so well, and we have the pleasure of experiencing it along with him. His journey through classicism and French history becomes ours, as we learn about the Druids, the Galls, the Romans, former French President François Mitterand, and much more; as he carries around a stone he was convinced had magical power because it looked like a scallop shell, until it becomes too heavy to carry; as we wolf down hearty French meals and sup coarse local wine after a long day of walking, before we fall like a stone into bed.

Author of Paris to the Pyrenees. A S

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And though we might not receive penance, we end the journey all the richer in knowledge, having read a good tale, too. The book is a latter-day Canterbury Tales, with a varied lot of pilgrims, locals, and farmers all along the way. Alison Harris’ photos are in perfect harmony with Downie’s narrative. You’ll want to wear a scallop shell around your neck after reading this book.

Other sources of information about the book: NPR, 3 Quarks Daily, Boston Globe, Bonjour Paris

 

 

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Truffles in Black and White: Part One: The Truffles of Alba

By Saturday, January 18, 2014 Permalink 0
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Truffles in Black and White: Part One: The Truffles of Alba, or Italian White Gold

by David Downie

The Truffles of Italy’s Piedmont

In the vaulted cellars at Tartufi Morra, the longest-established truffle dealership in Alba, a town of 30,000 in Piedmont 60 kilometers by road south of Turin, manager Alessandro Bonino fielded telephone orders while sorting white truffles still clotted with soil. “Truffles are hypogeous fungi,” Bonino said, waving his left hand, “meaning mushrooms that grow underground.” Of the 60 known species, 25 grow in Italy. Tartufi bianchi d’Alba—white Alba truffles—are the rarest, most aromatic and, the businesslike Bonino confirmed, by far the most expensive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“White truffles only grow wild and only in a limited geographical area,” Bonino explained to me. “That’s why they’re so scarce and costly, and also why the statistics on them aren’t reliable—how do you tabulate them when their surrounded by secrecy?”

Alba’s Centro Nazionale Studi Tartufi (CNST), a government-funded research agency, estimates average Italian truffle production per year for all edible species at 400 tons, including about 40 tons of premium tartufo nero (Tuber melanosporum), the black truffles of northern and central Italy, half of which are farmed. In an exceptionally good year the southwest of France also produces about 40 tons of nearly identical melanosporum, the northeast of Spain 20 tons, in both cases 80 to 90 percent farmed. Harvests for the last decade or more for Italian, French and Spanish melanosporum have been small, with wholesale prices ranging between 650-1,200 euros per kilo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By comparison white truffles occur only near Alba and in other parts of Piedmont, and, in far smaller quantities, in the Acqualagna area of the Marches, the province of Savona on the Italian Riviera, and in Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary. In an average year about 2 tons are found overall, though, as Bonino noted, statistics are notoriously unreliable. Wholesale prices in the 2010-2011 season range from an astonishing 3,000 to 4,000 euros per kilogram, about the same as Sevruga caviar.

As with caviar, demand far outstrips supply for prized white and black truffles. Bonino sells both.

Black and white truffles are not as different as apples and oranges, according to Bonino and others in the business. Comparing them is tricky. “All truffles are mushrooms. Preference is strictly personal, a question of taste, budget and use.”

White Alba truffles are actually pale to straw yellow. They look and feel like small, warty potatoes. Their scientific name is Tuber magnatum pico. Though unwieldy the name is widely used in commerce to avoid confusion with other pale-colored species.

The white truffle season runs from late September to mid-February. Except during the war years 1939-1945, in the second half of October since 1929 Alba has hosted the Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo (International Truffle Fair). The fair lasts two weeks, drawing tens of thousands of visitors. It has helped make white truffles synonymous with the town and the surrounding Langhe, a region of tuck ‘n’ roll hills where most white truffles are found.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As is typical, during a November visit to the Piedmont I experienced cold, damp weather. Wearing a woolen sweater the trim, middle-aged Bonino led me through the Tartufi Morra cellar to a room where an assistant in a blue lab coat hand-brushed white truffles, rinsed them under cold, running water and placed them on a drainboard. Bonino demonstrated how to gauge the firmness of a truffle, pinching one between forefinger and thumb. “When ripe, truffles white or black are as firm as tennis balls,” he said. “Too hard and they’re unripe. Too soft and they’re overripe.”

The smell and flavor of a ripe, healthy white truffle evokes mild garlic, honey, hay and fresh mushrooms. Scents of ammonia, humus or mold indicate rot.

“For security and conservation the bulk of our truffles are cellared,” Bonino added. “With all truffles the soil stays on until we prepare them for shipping. They’re 80 percent water. Soil preserves humidity.” Unbrushed, unwashed truffles last 7 to 10 days in a cool, dark room. Brushed and washed, they should be used within a few days. “Diamonds are forever, truffles are for now,” Bonino quipped, nostrils flaring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upstairs in the retail shop a few fresh white truffles covered by a moist cloth were in a refrigerated case. Canned or bottled whole truffles, truffled purées, pâtés, chocolates and olive oil filled shelves. Such transportable, long-lasting products appeal to many consumers, especially tourists, and allow truffle sellers to work year-round. Natural truffle essence, derived from fresh truffles, is the Holy Grail of researchers and retailers but has yet to be perfected. Most top-end shops like Tartufi Morra do not sell artificial truffle flavoring, an ersatz substitute scorned by serious Piedmontese chefs and food lovers.

Outside in the medieval tangle of streets, truffle scents wafted from restaurants and food shops. The enjoyment of white truffles is primarily an olfactory experience. During white truffle season Alba is a delight to the nose, and the scent is free for the taking.

Formerly plentiful and cheap, since at least the 1300s truffles, particularly white truffles, have been prized in Piedmontese cuisine. Scarcity and cost have not thinned the ranks of cultish truffle lovers. The half-dozen chefs in and near Alba I met during my 5-day visit concurred that white truffles lose potency and flavor when cooked and therefore should be eaten raw.

At Villa Tiboldi, a restaurant and B&B where I stayed, near Canale, equidistant from Alba and Turin, chef Stefano Pagagnini dressed fresh tagliolini with melted butter, set a digital scale on my table, weighed a white truffle then quickly shaved approximately 10 grams off it onto the pasta. “The heat releases the raw truffle’s scent,” he explained. “Smell is most of the experience. Simple food like pasta is best because it doesn’t overwhelm the truffle.”

Pagagnini was right. The luscious simplicity of the dish exalted the truffle’s aroma, which subtly evoked garlic, honeysuckle and mushroom. Flavors and aromas melded. I was unable to separate them. Even when I lifted a truffle shaving off the pasta and tasted it alone the sensations came almost entirely through my nose.

The photos in this series of articles on truffles were taken by Alison Harris. You can see the entire set as a slide show in Food Art: Behind the Scenes of the Noble Truffle, food photography by Alison Harris.

Next segment: truffle hunters.

See also: David Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Two, Truffle Hunting in PiedmontDavid Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Three: the Truffle Heartland of Southwest FranceThe Truffle-hunting Pig of Lalbenque

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The Fundamental Interconnectedness of Wine, Food and Art

By Monday, September 2, 2013 Permalink 0
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The Fundamental Interconnectedness of Wine, Food and Art and Just About Everything Else That’s Good

Jonell Galloway, The Rambling Epicure, Mindful Eating, Spontaneous Cuisine, Editor of The Rambling Epicure.by Jonell Galloway

From the archives

As Shelly Butcher so aptly said in her article “Welcome to the Borscht Belt, exploring the ‘fundamental interconnectedness’ of all things food,” there is a fundamental interconnectedness in food and it can extend beyond the bounds of food, to things related to art de vivre, wine, aesthetics and the whole ambiance, as the French might say. I think most of us would agree that the French and Italians do it best in the Western world, and we all busy ourselves trying to imitate them. Once the bond is made through food and wine, it often remains and blooms into something bigger and more far-reaching.

 

My very special story is about how my husband Peter White and I met David Downie and Alison Harris.

My husband is a master at planning trips. He always chooses the perfect B&B, which often happens to be a castle or palazzo or some kind of wonder, with an idyllic view, and of course a long list of perfect restaurants to go along with it.

This summer we took the children to Burgundy for a week, and while in Beaune, where we were staying at one of his perfect B&Bs, Les Jardins de Loïs, a little paradise right in the heart of the city, I picked up a book called Wine Food Burgundy in the study. It’s a guidebook, but quite frankly, if you love good writing like we do, you can read it for the pure joy of style. Over the next few days, every time my husband put it down, I picked it up, and vice versa. I won’t say we fought over it, but we both kept our eye on it at all times, as if it were a precious gem we had to keep watch over.

When we returned home to Geneva, I promptly looked up the book and the author, David Downie, and wrote a comment on his site.

The next day, two amazing things happened. First, I realized that I had stupidly left my jewelry box at Aux Terrasses in Tournus. Secondly, the owner of Loïs telephoned my husband to say that the writer of Wine Food Burgundy wanted to contact us. He and his wife were spending the summer in their country house near Cluny (and near Tournus). And the most amazing part of it all is that since we had to drive back to Tournus to get my jewelry, we decided it was in the stars. Somebody somewhere meant for us to meet.

So Peter and I drove to Tournus, had a lovely lunch with David and Alison at Aux Terrasses, and we’ve been in contact ever since.

Here’s David’s version of our meeting.

 

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David Downie: The Tale of the Two Labyrinths of Chartres

By Thursday, July 11, 2013 Permalink 0
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David Downie: The Tale of the Two Labyrinths of Chartres

David Downie, The Rambling Epicureby David Downie

Introduction by Jonell Galloway

Chartres is not only my home, but remains one of the most mystical places on earth, even after years of living there. It has everything I need in a city: a spiritual atmosphere, good food, good wine, beautiful stained glass, a beautiful cathedral and 128 or so other beautiful churches, and honest people who, being from the bread basket of France, have never lost their work ethic and healthy attitude. People were already making pilgrimages to Chartres long before the Christianized Romans appeared on the scene, and they continue to do so in droves today.

Chartres Labyrinth

Chartres labyrinth (Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was pleased to see Rambling Epicure contributor David Downie’s article on Gadling about the labyrinths of Chartres, the city that may just have more history than any in Europe, and about how its sacred sites continue to inspire people of many denominations and beliefs who travel from all over the world to soak up its telluric energy.

France, Chartres, Labyrinth

Labyrinth reproduction in the garden below the cathedral (Photo credit: hdes.copeland)

Outdoors in a panoramic park behind the famous cathedral of Chartres a teenage girl skipped along the concentric pathways of a grassy labyrinth. Other kids shouted and kicked a soccer ball. Young lovers simultaneously pecked at each other and the touchpads of their handheld devices, observed by curious onlookers.  

Most such onlookers in Chartres are day-trippers from nearby Paris: The capital is an hour’s ride east on a commuter train.

Click here to read rest of article.

 

vitrail de la cathédrale de Chartres

Stained glass in Chartres Cathedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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David Downie: Artful Parisian Pastry, Part 2: Paris Present

By Wednesday, June 19, 2013 Permalink 0
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Parisian Artful Pastry, Part 2: Paris Present

by David Downie

The minimalism of contemporary pastry art can be spectacular. A Paris-trained American pastry chef friend of mine from New York came to dinner carrying a hatbox. She lifted the lid and everyone gasped. “It’s a pastry radiator,” I couldn’t help exclaiming. The “radiator’s” buttery pastry fins were filled with ethereal cream, shielded by dark chocolate plates and mounted on a hard nougatine U-shaped base reminiscent of Bakelite.

Classic chocolates from Jean-Paul Hévin ©Alison Harris

“Actually it’s a vertical millefeuille,” my friend explained as she heated the blade of a long knife—the only way to slice this incredible, gorgeous delicacy without destroying it.

The “radiator” turned out to be the conceptual-art brainchild of culinary designer Marc Brétillot, whose creations have often been spotted in the pastry department at the Bon Marché’s Grande Épicerie.

“Pastry is art,” Philippe Muzé, for a decade the wonder-worker at Paris’s bastion of traditionalism, Dalloyau, told me (he has since moved on and on and won many awards). “It’s poetry,” he added. “You can turn sugar, chocolate, herbs, spices and fruit into a million flavors and colors.” I hesitated before deconstructing his green Gâteau Vert, discovering a raspberry-colored biscuit, pear mousse, hot Szechwan pepper, cardamom, thyme and paprika.

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David Downie: Artful Parisian Pastry: Paris Past, Part 1

By Monday, June 17, 2013 Permalink 0
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David Downie: Artful Parisian Pastry: Paris Past, Part 1

by David Downie

What do the glories of ancient Greece and imperial Rome, baroque Naples and pre-revolutionary “Let-them-eat-cake” France have in common with contemporary Paris?

Easy: artful pastry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toss out a euro coin nowadays and it will probably land on a Paris pâtisserie whose chef is bent on titillating customers’ taste buds while dazzling eyes and lightening wallets. White chocolate roses crown red powdered-sugar lips. Fruit still-lifes à la Caravaggio top praline plinths. Dark chocolate treasure chests enclose luscious layer cakes, and bras are not of silk but of purest chocolat.

Training in artistic Parisian pastry making is also in vogue: ever since the renowned École Grégoire-Ferrandi cooking school began partnering with mega-star Pierre Hermé, the chef Vogue has dubbed “the Picasso of pastry”, the “Haute Pâtisserie” concept has ruled Paris tastes.

“The fine arts number five,” wrote Marie-Antoine Carême in the late 18th century, “painting, sculpture, poetry, music and architecture, the principal branch of which is pastry.”

Ever the tongue-in-cheek wit, not for nothing Carême was known as “the king of chefs and the chef of kings”. His claim to pastry fame was the invention of Pièces Montées—precursors of today’s tiered wedding cakes. Remember Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot? Carême pièces were big enough to hide a man, like the cakes machine gun-toting Mafiosi burst from in gangster movies.

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Paris to the Pyrenees: David Downie Eats His Way Down the Way of St. James, Interview by Elatia Harris

By Monday, April 22, 2013 Permalink 0
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Left: Cross with Rocks, copyright Alison Harris.
Right: Forest Cathedral, copyright Alison Harris

 

Interview by Elatia Harris

Their 50th birthdays in sight, the acclaimed travel and food writer David Downie, and his wife, the photographer Alison Harris, decided that trekking from Paris to Spain, would be just the thing. They are based in Paris, so the Way of St. James, for a millennium one of the world’s most celebrated pilgrimage routes, was right at their back door. Neither Alison nor David is religious — the classical pilgrimage experience was not what they were seeking. What were they seeking? Renewal, changed perspectives. Perhaps to test themselves, over 72 days and 1100 km of — at times — very rough terrain. And thereby hangs a tale.

Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of St. Jameslaunches this week. Scroll to the end to see book tour information. Permission to post on TRE the superb photos from the book was granted by Alison Harris.

  

ELATIA HARRIS: There has been a lot in the news lately on pilgrimage, however one understands the phenomenon. People who do it talk about needing to lose their routine and find themselves. Most set out alone, meeting others en route. You and Alison started together.

DAVID DOWNIE: Our choice to walk together happened organically. I had planned to do this on my own. Alison came along to keep me out of trouble. If you ask her, she’s likely to say it was her idea about 25 years ago, when she suggested we do something similar.

EH: Readers cannot but wonder how they would hold up, in these circumstances. I pictured a long leisurely walk through a French countryside movie. Cows, chateaux…oh, perhaps a few mildly strenuous stints.  I was so wrong. This was a test of all your combined resources. It would be for any couple. 72 days of togetherness and real physical hardship. And you had already spent years collaborating on your books.

DD: Like some old couples, we have merged in mind and spirit — if such a thing exists — while remaining very different people, and very pig-headedly independent. So, while we were together on the pilgrimage, we were often apart both in our mental spheres and physically. Alison stopped constantly, ran ahead, took detours, disappeared, got lost—often, though not always, in pursuit of a photograph. She probably walked twice as many miles as I did. By the end of the pilgrimage, my regard for her had only deepened. I can’t speak for her, of course.

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David Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Three: the Truffle Heartland of Southwest France

By Wednesday, February 29, 2012 Permalink 0
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David Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Three: the Truffle Heartland of Southwest France

by David Downie

“Even an expert has difficulty distinguishing brumale from melanosporum,” growled Pierre-Jean Pébeyre, France’s leading dealer of fresh and conserved melanosporum. I met Pébeyre on a freezing day in February in Cahors. Like many traditionalists Pébeyre expressed hostility to spore-impregnated trees, the probable source of the brumale infestation.

Pébeyre estimated that 5 percent of the black truffles he buys at premium prices turn out to be brumales. “You buy truffles when dirty, and you can’t tell. The ugly truth comes out after brushing.”

The Pébeyre truffle plant, founded in 1897 by Pierre-Jean’s great-grandfather, is based in central Cahors, capital of the Lot département. The Lot’s pre-Revolutionary name was Quercy, a deformation of the Latin quercus—oak. The scenic, oak-covered Quercy and abutting Périgord are France’s main melanosporum source. Another common name for this truffle is truffe noire du Périgord.

With a sense of humor as noir as the truffles he trades, Pébeyre, in a blue lab coat taut over his stout frame, walked me through the sorting, grading and brushing processes. He held up two black truffles that appeared identical, with rough patterned skin like a dog’s nose. “Brush a brumale and the skin detaches,” he grunted. With a pocket knife he sliced the brumale, pointed out the dark brownish exterior and flesh, and the thick, white veins within, and offered a taste. It was crisp, smelled unpleasantly of alcohol, and was flavorless.

Pébeyre then sliced a melanosporum, noting how the outside was asphalt-black, the flesh gray-brown, the pattern of veins fine. It was crunchy, smelled pleasantly of mushroom, and, I suggested, tasted something like strawberry jam and chocolate. Pébeyre fought back a frown.

Mélanos smell and taste like mélanos,” he said, using the regional abbreviated form for melanosporum. “Why make taste or nose associations?”

The Pébeyre plant once processed tons of local melanosporum. With dwindling supplies, however, sourcing has widened to Italy and Spain. “The Italian and Spanish mélanos are just as good,” Pébeyre insisted. “The problem is brumales and others.”

Such is the demand for truffles in France that brumales and many undesirable truffle varieties are not discarded. They find their way into pâtés and truffled foods where they cannot be identified readily. France also imports around 50 tons per year of Chinese T. indicum; Pébeyre sells indicum worldwide. “Some people actually prefer it because it’s mild,” he shrugged,  “and everyone likes the price.” In Europe, Chinese truffles fetch a fraction of the price of melanosporum. Boosters say Chinese indicum taste of moss and undergrowth, are not “bad” merely “different” from melanosporum.

However some unscrupulous retailers and restaurateurs fraudulently pass off lesser truffles as melanosporum. “It’s bad for business,” sighed Pébeyre, whose products are clearly labeled. “And in this business reputation is everything.”

Over lunch at Pébeyre’s comfortable house we savored delicious tastous, sandwiches of long, thin, lightly buttered country bread and shaved raw brumale seasoned with salt and pepper baked in a very hot oven for about two minutes. We followed with hearty truffled cervelas sausages and truffled mashed potatoes.

As with white truffles, the food melanosporum accompanies should be simple. Unlike whites, however, blacks stand up to cooking. “Cooking melanosporum transforms the flavor,” said Pébeyre, citing a handful of classic French recipes including poulet en démi-deuil (roasted chicken with sliced truffles under the skin). “Cooked truffles, whether they’re fresh or conserved, are different, more complex, less forceful than fresh, raw truffles.”

Conserved melanosporum are sterilized in 115° C boiling water for 2 1/2 hours. The juice is sold separately and is, to my palate, as flavorful as the conserved truffles themselves.

The French melanosporum harvest has at times dipped to or below a mere 10 tons in bad years. There have been many bad years in recent decades, and very few good years. Pébeyre ascribed the decline to rural abandonment, meaning demographic shifts of farming populations to cities. He also cited unsuccessful propagation efforts, and changing weather patterns. “There are fewer summer storms and to thrive all truffles need heavy rainfall in July and August,” he explained, adding, “it’s possible one day we’ll simply run out of melanosporum.”

About 10 kilometers by road due south of Cahors at the government-funded Station d’expérimentation sur la truffe, chief botanist and trufficulteur Pierre Sourzat, an excitable, sinewy man in his 50s or early 60s, showed me spore-impregnated seedlings he was growing and took me to visit two truffle plantations. An affable zealot whose mission is to unravel the mystery of mycorrhization and bring back the days of 1,000-ton melanosporum harvests in France, Sourzat radiated optimism about boosting truffle production worldwide through scientific methodology, soil preparation and fertilization, and summertime irrigation. He spoke in a rapid-fire tenor voice, pulling me along as he raced to keep up with Boubou, his trained golden retriever. Within minutes Boubou had unearthed a dozen small brumales, melanosporums and other truffles.

Peak truffle production in France coincided with the phylloxera outbreak that decimated vineyards in the late 1800s, Sourzat explained. “Desperate grapegrowers replaced vineyard tracts with truffle-oak plantations. They bore fruit for decades but after World War Two weren’t well maintained or replanted, and we’re suffering the consequences now.”

Host trees take 5 to 15 years to bear truffles, producing for 40 to 60 years thereafter. “If we hadn’t reforested with spore-impregnated trees decades ago we might have no truffles at all by now,” Sourzat insisted. “Mycorrhization does work. Look at Spain. Soon plantations in Oregon, Texas and New Zealand will be commercially viable.”

In the fourth and final segment of Truffles in Black and White I travel to the legendary truffle town of Lalbenque and meet truffle-hunter Marthe Delon and her truffle-hunting pig.

The photos in this series of articles on truffles were taken by Alison Harris. You can see the entire set as a slide show in Food Art: Behind the Scenes of the Noble Truffle, food photography by Alison Harris.

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David Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Two, Truffle Hunting in Piedmont

By Thursday, February 23, 2012 Permalink 0
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//
by David Downie

Truffles in Black and White: Part Two, Truffle Hunting in Piedmont, Italy

The scent of truffles is what draws trained dogs and pigs to them. Wild or cultivated, truffles grow at random around host trees and must be hunted out and carefully removed using a small pick or trowel.

Eighth-generation truffle hunter and dog trainer Renato Agnello, a wiry dynamo in his late 60s, teaches truffle hunting at Alba’s Centro Nazionale Studi Tartufi (CNST) and leads simulated hunts. In Alba’s main square, Piazza Risorgimento, Agnello opened the back hatch of a muddy FIAT Panda and introduced me to his aging truffle hound, Diana. We drove at breakneck speed into vineyards bordering the Tanaro River south of town. The smell of Diana, dirt and truffles was dizzying.

Photo courtesy of Alison HarrisIn Italy, truffle hunters must be registered, trained and licensed. Piedmont’s 10,000 are reputed to be secretive. Agnello was expansive. “I’ve been at it 61 years,” he laughed. “With people and dogs it’s genetic.”

Italian law states that truffles on public or private land belong to their finder. To keep truffle hunters out, private property must be fenced and posted “no trespassing.” Trespassing is common, however, particularly in central Italy’s commercial black truffle plantations (there are no white truffle plantations).

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Our favorite food books of 2011

By Friday, December 23, 2011 Permalink 0
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by Jonell Galloway

Cookbooks:

Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, by Maria Speck

My favorite cookbook of the year. Maria Speck knows how to incorporate ancient whole grains from around the world into dishes that remain rustic on the edges, but healthy, original and elegant at the same time. The technical explanations about ancient grains are excellent, as well as her explanations about general cooking techniques. The food stories she incorporates here and there about growing up in Greece and Germany add a touch of charm.

A must for any health-conscious real food lover who wants to eat interesting food combinations and dishes with a touch more sophistication that can pleasantly surprise guests, but not take them totally away from their references, because the dishes are for the most part influenced by Mediterranean cuisine.

For poetry-loving foodies:

The Poet’s Cookbook: Recipes from Germany, poems by 33 American poets with German translations

The Poet’s Cookbook: Recipes from Tuscany, poems by 28 Italian and American poets

I love the original concept of these books, pairing a food poem with a recipe. A poem by our Food Poetry Editor, Christina Daub, “Wine“, appears in the Tuscany version.

Farming: A Hand Book, by Wendell Berry

As a Kentuckian, Wendell Berry has forever been my mentor. He is, in my mind, the precursor of the Slow Food philosophy in the U.S., through the philosophy he has cultivated and spread for over 50 years now, well before Petrini and company started the Slow Food movement. Whether writing prose or poetry, he is always eloquent, and the same message of integrity, respect for others and for the land is the central message. This is one more inspiring book of poetry to add to our shelves of books to keep forever, that will comfort us in times of trouble, that we will pick up time and time again when we’re losing faith in humanity, devastated by the disrespect shown to the land, losing touch with our roots. Berry always says what he thinks in all his eloquence and with true gentillesse, but more than that, he lives the life he preaches, and that is consoling.

For food lovers, wine lovers, and culinary travelers:

Food Wine Rome, by David Downie and Alison Harris, published by The Little Bookroom, part of The Terroir Guides series

Food Wine Burgundy, by David Downie and Alison Harris, published by The Little Bookroom, part of The Terroir Guides series

Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, by David Downie

David Downie writes wonderful articles for The Rambling Epicure and Alison does exquisite food photo exhibits for our Food Art section. I can never get enough of their work, because the writing is exquisite and full of literary and historical references, and the photos are truly art. Downie always shows you the insider’s view of whatever he writes about, and Alison has a great eye for catching the very essence of what they’re covering, whether it be truffle hunting or discovering little out-of-the way restaurants in isolated villages. You can never go wrong with their books.

For bread lovers:

Dictionnaire Universel du Pain, by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac

Jean-Philippe de Tonnac also writes for The Rambling Epicure, and has recently become THE bread writer all bakers want to meet. This book should in my mind be translated into English immediately. It offers a wealth of information about bread from time immemorial, covering techniques and breads from around the world, as well as spirituality, sex, gluten intolerance, bakers as poets, bakers as prophets and much more. “Encyclopedia” would be a more appropriate term than “dictionary”.

Mindful eating:

The Self-Compassion Diet: Guided Practices to Lose Weight with Loving-Kindness by Jean Fain

Jean Fain has tried every diet out there, so she can speak with authority about the subject of weight loss. She is also affiliated with Harvard Medical School as a psychotherapist, so she has the credentials to talk about the subject. Her book takes a totally different approach to weight loss than any I’ve seen. She doesn’t count calories and restrict what you eat. Her approach is instead through the mind, to become mindful of what we eat, when we eat (when stressed or lonely, for example), why we eat (out of need to nourish ourselves or out of boredom or frustration); to appreciate what we eat, and above all to be conscious of our entire relationship with food.

The book teaches you how to take control of yourself and your relationship to food so that you can change the way you think about food in general, so that eating becomes a totally different experience. Jean does this through loving-kindness, self-hypnosis, meditation and numerous other weight-loss approaches, which you follow gradually, not all in one go. She also offers a CD including guided meditations to help patients after they have stopped therapy.

Her main thrust is self-love, that we must not be too hard on ourselves, or we’ll fall back in to our old and bad habits quickly. The beauty of the book and CD combination is that you can live half way around the planet and still follow her method.

For lovers of literature: food essays and prose:

Slow Food: Collected Thoughts on Taste, Tradition, and the Honest Pleasures of Food, by Carlo Petrini and Ben Watson

This book consists of an anthology of articles by the world’s top food writers, making me remember the old days when we’d visit the family in the countryside and how I thought it odd that they grew all their vegetables themselves and knew how to can them; how they drank milk straight from the cow (one of my fondest childhood memories), and how we relished in those meals, how it built bonds between us. “Drawn from five years of the quarterly journal Slow (only recently available in America), this book includes more than 100 articles covering eclectic topics from “Falafel” to “Fat City.” From the market at Ulan Bator in Mongolia to Slow Food Down Under, this book offers an armchair tour of the exotic and bizarre. You’ll pass through Vietnam’s Snake Tavern, enjoy the Post-Industrial Pint of Beer, and learn why the lascivious villain in Indian cinema always eats Tandoori Chicken.”

For pastry makers and lovers:

Mich Turner’s  Masterclass: The Ultimate Guide to Cake Decorating Perfection, by Mich Turner, published by Jacqui Small LLP, London

Mitch Turner’s cake decorating book is worthy of a fine art book in its presentation, and of an encyclopedia in terms of the detailed explanations about cake decorating. Her pastry and cakes are truly works of art. A must for all pastry makers, whether professional or amateur.

Food art:

From Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography, by Hélène Dujardin

This book is special for many reasons. There are lots of people out there trying to learn food photography without a clue as to even the basic techniques required and no possibility of taking a food photography workshop. This is the book for them, because all the basics plus quite a lot more are explained in a clear, direct manner. It also verges on being an art book, because it is illustrated by Dujardin’s beautiful food photography.

 

 

 

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