In Città di Castello, Magnificent Tubers Entice
In early November, white truffles star at the 32nd edition of la Mostra-Mercato del Tartufo Bianco in Citta’ di Castello in the Upper Tiber Valley. But not only the prized white truffle, Tuber Magnatum Pico: all the many flavors of Umbrian fall goodness team with traditional culinary wisdom in this weekend dedicated to educating the taste buds and the mind through a kaleidoscope of conferences, cooking competitions, theatrical presentations and food tastings.
The enthusiasm of visitors was not dampened at all on the misty gray opening day. Under huge white tents in the main piazza, a friend and I joined the locals in tastings of white and black truffle patés, the newly-milled olive oils with fresh ground truffle, roasted chestnuts with a glass of robust yet sweet cannaiola wine, and the new olive oils on bruschetta.As Mauro Severini, president of the Comunita’ Montana Umbra Nord (organizer of the fetival along with the city of Citta’ di Castello) says, “Now what is good must also be healthy – and woodland foods synthesize good flavors and health, reflecting the wisdom of tradition and local cuisine. We wish to bring the visitors here, young and old, to a new way of thinking about food, especially quality food”
Nadia Marconi, a local teacher, echoed his words with passione as we lunched together with her and friends in the festival food couryard. Over fettuccine al tartufo bianco and the famous Chianina veal of the Tiber Valley, Nadia admonished, “Frozen foods, no! Why unwrap, heat and serve a food? Food is a language, a way of communicating and enthusiasm must be added to its preparation and the serving to friends. You have to put your soul into food. Let us communicate over food. Aromas, flavors, colors all transmit messages – such a perfect form of communication! Let us educate our youth, our children to the flavors of food as communication.”Indicating her husband seated next to her, Nadia continued, “We are two simple spirits and lovers of la cucina tradizionale: from the garden to the table, food as a reflection of our relationship with nature.” Nadia indicated the paper plates and forks with disdain, grimacing “I do not even want to see these!” As she talked, friend Joan and I began to wish that we had had Nadia as a teacher! ” In school, I do not like written tests,” she said, “as I want my students to talk to me, taking the time they need to organize their thoughts, ideas. Each one’s natural rhythyms should be respected. Just as in the preparation of foods”.
Next to Nadia, Augusto Tocci – in his signature yellow sportcoat – nodded. Director of the Istituto Sperimentale per la Selvicoltura (centered on the conservation of woodland environments), Tocci is a well-known RAI TV personality, noted for his programs on the ties between culinary traditions and local environments and rural culture. We had popped into one of the main tents on the square that morning, named “Casa Tocci” where he and Nadia were chatting with the local woman on culinary lore and preparing together a simple Tocci recipe, eggplant pate’ (see below).As we lunched on seasonal specialties prepared and served (with grace and elegance!) by the students of the local Scuola Alberghiera (hotel/catering high school), local people – food enthusiasts and not – stopped to chat with Signor Tocci and Nadia. Other diners chatted at nearby tables in the courtyard and under the surrounding porticoes, tastings of local goodness were offered: the black celery unique to Trevi (at the Slow Food stand), the famed prosciutto and capocollo of Norcia, pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheeses aged in grape skins and aged in walnut leaves, roasted chestnuts dipped in chocolate, and at one table, the catering high school culinary teacher, carved huge orange winter squashes into gigantic flower blossoms as his young students in snappy chef uniforms watched. I asked one, “Can you do that?” “I’m learning,” he beamed. In food tents, across the piazza, we chatted with truffle vendors, savoring the bouquet of white truffles priced at 4000 Euro per kilo (large, uniformly round white ones have the highest value). We roamed the displays of everything from ancient farm tools to the re-creation of a 19th-century wine cellar to a display of wild mushrooms in a woodland environment. A tradtional Umbrian bread cupboard, la matera, displayed every type of bread imaginable, including pane al tartufo, of course! Vendors sold porcini mushrooms, salami with truffles, bread with truffles, honeys with truffle, cheeses with truffles.
White truffle may be the star but the Mostra/Mercato del Tartufo Bianco celebrates – above all – Umbria’s richly diverse heritage in this November week-end dedicated to gastronomy, rural culture and traditions – and healthy eating.
Tocci Eggplant Paté
Wrap 2 medium-sized eggplants in foil and bake in oven til soft when pricked with a fork.
Put pulp into blender.
Add anchovies, black olives, capers, olive oil, Q.B. .
Note: “Quanto basta” means “as much as you need”. Augusto Tocci – like any great rural cooks – does not create with recipes. Like him, experiment with ingredients and flavors. Nadia would say, “Communicate with the food!”
Spread pate’ on a good, crusty bread. Buon appetito!
Read about how I bring Nadia’s cooking philosophy to US schools
Read about other November events in Umbria
Read more on truffles
Read about another mostra/mercato featuring truffles
Read about a sagra near Perugia starring peperoncino