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Dianne Hales - La Bella Lingua
Eating Italian

The Jewel of Tubers: The White Truffle of Alba

Polenta Truffles According to age-old legends, truffles (tartuffi) grow where the light of the full moon penetrates the trees to touch the earth or where drops of stag semen have fallen. Of all truffles, none compares to the gastronomic jewel known in the Piedmontese dialect as trifola d'Alba (the white truffle of Alba).

A Polish count named De Borch first discovered the white truffle but the Turin physician Vittorio Pico bestowed its offical scientific name: Tuber Magnatum Pico. From September until December trifulau (truffle hunters) and their dogs, specially trained to detect the truffle scent, scour the hills of the Langhe south of Alba for this fungus, which grows entirely underground amid tree roots.

Every fall the Alba region celebrates its famous delicacy with festivals and an international auction where prices soar into the hundreds of thousands of Euro. Ever since the 1950s a prized truffle has been awarded to a famous person, such as an American president or a celebrity such as Sophia Loren or Luciano Pavarotti.

While popular belief is that October is truffle month, later in the season the white truffle is far riper, and the hardened frozen ground helps to lock in the full pungent fragrance of the addictive mushroom. Another plus: once the Alba Truffle Fair has come to an end and the tourists have gone home, prices drop.

Executive Chef Gianluca Guglielmi of A.G. Ferrari Foods offers a classic way to enjoy seasonal truffles—with polenta, a traditional of northern Italy's cuisine. The thirteen A.G. Ferrari Foods stores in northern California are importing fresh white truffles throughout December. Click here to find out more or order.

Grana Padano and Truffle Polenta

Chef Gianluca
Chef Gianluca
  • 8 cups water
  • Tbsp sea salt
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cups Grana Padano cheese, shaved
  • 1 cup Mascarpone
  • 2 cups AGF Farina per Polenta Bramata
  • 1 oz fresh white truffle (or 1 jar Tartuflanghe sliced black truffle)
Instructions: (6 to 8 servings)
  • Bring water to a boil in a heavy pan. Add salt.
  • Using a whisk, gradually stir 2 cups of polenta into the boiling water.
  • Cook slowly for 60 to 70 minutes, stirring few times during this period.
  • Remove from heat, add mascarpone and Grana Padano, stir well.
  • Divide polenta into 6 to 8 bowls and shave some fresh white truffle on top.
  • Serve immediately.

Touring Italian

100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go

This is an excerpt from a new travel book I would recommend to any man or woman heading for Italy: 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go by Susan van Allen. After more than 25 years of visiting Italy, I found new treasures I can't wait to explore, with this book in hand. Among them are the gardens near Florence that Susan describes below.

Gardens outside Florence

Leave the Vespa roars of Florence behind and head to the surrounding hills to discover lovely small gardens with fabulous views. Here's where Florentines have come to chill-out since the days of the Medici.

You can get to them easily from Florence, by taking a short bus ride and walking about ten minutes. If you're feeling energetic, you could even hike up to them from the city, just like folks in olden days.

Villa Medici—Fiesole

Three terraces of simple grace make up Italy's first Renaissance garden.

In 1461, Giovanni de Medici, the radical son of Cosimo, bought this land because he loved the view of the city below. His dad thought it was a cockamamie idea: Why spend a bundle for a steep, rocky plot that you can't even grow anything on? The Medici were originally farming people, and Cosimo's beloved spot was his country villa, where he'd tend vineyards and olive groves, hang with the peasants, and have friends over to read Plato.

Giovanni, a Medici banker, was of the new generation. From reading Pliny's Ancient Roman writings, he got the notion that a garden was a place to combine home, nature, and an awesome view. Forget about growing food. Forget about the walled medieval garden. His terraces would blend with the landscape and villa, like an outdoor room. This would be a beautiful place to kick back, enjoy entertainments, and contemplate the mysteries of life.

Giovanni's overeating and drinking got the better of him and he died of a heart attack in his forties before he had much time to enjoy this place. His nephew, Lorenzo the Magnificent, took it over and it became a meeting place for the Neo-Platonic Academy. Here was where Lorenzo would lead philosophical discussions centered around the idea that perfection and happiness could be attained right here on earth (not in the afterlife) through intellectual contemplation and the appreciation of beauty. Lorenzo's artist friends—Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli—along with philosophers, poets, and musicians were all invited. You can imagine Lorenzo in these gardens leading the group: "Play the lute! Read me a verse from the Aeneid! What's life's highest vocation? Tell me your ideas!"

The gardens have been re-landscaped over the years, but the original structure and remnants of it retained. Tall cypress tress line the entrance, there's pots of lemon trees neatly arranged on the front lawn. Giovanni had brought in lemons from Naples as a homage to the mythological Garden of Hesperides. According to Greek legend, the earth mother Gaia gave this magical garden to Hera on her wedding day. In it was a tree bearing golden-immortality-giving apples, guarded by Hesperides-nymphs of the night.

On a lower terrace, you walk under a pergola that's intertwined with roses. Four old Magnolia trees spread shade. Further along, you get the most stunning views of Florence. And in that garden are circles of trimmed boxwood hedges that replaced Lorenzo de Medici's herb garden.

These terraces were landscaped in the early 1900s. That's when one of Tuscany's most beloved women, Iris Origo, was growing up here. Iris was born in Britain, and when her father died, her mother moved the family to this villa in Fiesole.

Iris grew up to become an incredible woman and her legacy lives on in southern Tuscany's Val d'Orcia. That's where she and her husband had a farm during World War II, where they courageously and generously sheltered refugees. They transformed the farm to a jewel-of-an-estate called La Foce, that's now run by Iris's daughters. It's comprised of a fifteenth-century villa and farmhouses that have been renovated into guesthouses you can rent.

The Gardens at La Foce are sublime. If you're in the area, (near Montepulciano), stop by for a tour. In what had been a rugged place, Iris used memories of her past to create the garden's design. So it's a mix of classic English style with influences of the place in Fiesole she played in as a kid: the Villa Medici Renaissance garden.

Andrew Selvaggio
Susan van Allen

Information For Visitors

Villa Medici, Via Beato Angelico 2, Fiesole. The gardens, (La Foce) can be visited by appointment only. 055 59164/59417

From Florence: Bus #7 from the Stazione Centrale di Santa Maria Novella, Piazza San Marco, or the Duomo, to Fiesole's Piazza Mino, then an uphill walk.

Opening hours: the garden is open to the public every Wednesday afternoon. Guided tours leave from the Fattoria courtyard every hour from 3 to 7 PM (April-September) and 3 to 5 PM (October-March).

Golden Day: See the Villa Medici and explore the other treasures of Fiesole, including the Roman Theatre and Duomo. Lunch at Villa San Michele,(Via Doccia 4, 055 567 8200, www.villasanmichele.com) a converted convent with a loggia designed by Michelangelo, that's also an exquisite luxury hotel.