Italians take their fungi every seriously: from now through to Christmas, truck drivers and aristocracy alike will be in determined pursuit of a plate of tagliatelle with delicate shavings of truffle scattered over the top. Their choice of restaurant will depend on the skill of the chef in selecting just-so truffles, not the smartness of the décor – and consequently you can stumble across a humble osteria absolutely heaving with people from all walks of life.
Acqualagna, in the north of Le Marche, has a Fiera Nazionale del Tartufo Bianco a national white truffle festival from the 25th of October onwards; but we get a foretaste of the jollities with our own tartufo and fungi festival, which every year takes place on the second Sunday of October in the main piazza of Cingoli.
Fresh porcini mushrooms are piled high, and fresh black truffles are kept under glass to capture the feral aroma – interested customers are allowed a brief sniff as the dome is lifted. The local mycological society always has a large display of carefully identified mushrooms and toadstools – not for eating but for educational purposes. The mushroom stalls are interspersed with salume, prosciutto and fruit stands, such as La Golosa, and in no time at all you have the ingredients for a rather splendid supper.
Or not. I find picking a decent truffle to be tricky. Firstly there’s the problem that I can never remember the Latin names, and this is important: a stallholder will tell you that ‘yes of course this is a black truffle’ and then it turns out to be a summer (black) one – which looks exactly the same as tartufo nero (imagine a very warty black walnut) it just doesn’t have the same intense taste. And then there’s the tricky question of ripeness: some will taste better than others, and it takes experience to judge this before purchase. Reading up on it, the best way to judge is to cut a truffle open – though I doubt any vendor would allow you to do this. Occasionally I think ‘wow’ but often I reach for the white truffle oil to oomph up the flavour a bit.
When Billy and I eventually live here full time, I think I’m going to get a Lagotto Romagnolo truffle dog. Traditionally they were bred to hunt for ducks and truffles, I won’t mind which the hound comes home with.
The weather at this event is never moderate: it is either shrouded in fog, or it’s blazing hot sunshine. Either way the food stalls around the side of the square dish up a choice of dried fava bean and chickpea soup or meat ragu and polenta – produced by volunteer cooks – which is washed down with some Rosso Piceno wine. It’s a fun day out.