Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Monferrato, 2: The truffle

Moncalvo, Monferrato, October 28, 2014—

I could write a book about the pleasures of Monferrato: above all the land, which is rich and varied; next the inhabitants, who are intelligent and open; then the history, which is rich and complex. And, of course, the cuisine.

Monferrato is perhaps the heart of Piemonte. Asti is the big city on the southern edge; Casale Monferrato on the eastern; Torino on the western. We haven't yet explored the northern confines — after all these years!

Piemontese cuisine is of course like the rest of the Piemontese character: rich, reserved, a little old-fashioned, aged in the best sense; perfected and refined. It stands, I would say, exactly among three neighboring cuisines: French (not Provençal); Lombard; the Veneto. Now and then it nods toward the sea, but apart from anchovies and the marvelous tonnato fish is not really part of the Piemontese genius.

But truffles are. This is the heart of white truffle country. If you're here in October you'll see men in plaid wool jackets standing around apparently doing nothing: I think they're waiting for a dog, and pretending they know nothing about where the elusive fungus grows. 

So today we drove the three or four miles to the neighboring city — provincial city — of Moncalvo, a hilltop city I always enjoy walking about. There we had our second caffe of the day, and asked where we might find a good meal (since the Slow Food recommendation is closed Tuesdays, wouldn't you know it), and we were directed right across the street.

The menu was short and exclusively Piemontese — nay, even Monferrata. We looked at the menu, at each other, and agreed on plates of tagliarini with sliced white truffles.

The pasta was beautiful, a rich yellow thanks to the marvelous eggs in this country, dressed with nothing but that good Piemontese butter (the best there is, say I), and topped, as you see, with lots of sliced white truffle.

To tell the truth the truffle seems a little mild this year: too much water, Gabriella says. But there's nothing like them. Their flavor goes through everything. We tossed our pasta with knife and fork, mixing in the truffles to warm them — you don't cook these things! — and delicately wolfed down the pasta, then sopped up every bit of butter with the good bread we were given.

Afterward, green salad, of course; and for me a bounet, as it was spelled on this menu — yet another version, tricked up with irrelevant pomegranate seeds and a ground-cherry. It looked like a palm tree on a chocolate desert island: but the pudding itself was beautifully balanced between chocolate and hazelnut, had a fine texture neither mousse nor cake, and stood its ground after the truffles. What a lunch.

Barbera del Monferrato, "Goj," Cascina Castlet, 2013, half bottle: Frizzante! Almost a disturbing wine on the first taste, but it settled down nicely.

•Il Centrale, Piazza Romita, 10, Moncalvo (AS); +39 0141 91.71.26

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